*This paper is a part of a series on Europe’s evolving strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific.
France’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is “part of the intangible elements of our sovereignty and our defense and security policy.” This was the message that the French Minister of the Armed Forces Sébastien Lecornu delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue’s defense diplomacy summit in Singapore in early June 2022. This speech was the first from a senior French official after President Macron’s reelection – and the highest-level French statement on Indo-Pacific security since Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine in February 2022.
Historically the first European country to adopt an Indo-Pacific vision, centered on the defense of the French sovereign territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, France has been a strong advocate of a Europeanized approach. Can France lead Europe to become a more influential force in the Indo-Pacific? The European Union (EU) adopted in 2021 a “Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” but at the cost of a loss of focus. Reaching a common European denominator has led to a dilution of the original hard security and maritime law components of the French approach and established a much broader framework that seeks to be as inclusive as possible. A broad framework like this is intended to create space and flexibility.
The Australia – United Kingdom – United States (AUKUS) trilateral security partnership and the ongoing war in Ukraine have provided a helpful reality check regarding Europe’s stated ambitions to contribute to the security of the Indo-Pacific. By choosing to inflict considerable damage to Franco-Australian security cooperation, the Biden administration essentially told the whole of Europe that it sees little value in a European role in the Indo-Pacific security environment – complicating French efforts to turn the EU into a significant security player in that region to a point of no return at a time of immediate Russian military threat against Europe.
EU member states use the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific as a broad strategic guideline to diversify and step up their regional engagement, very often dominated by a legacy of magnetic attraction of the Chinese market. Diversification, in the form of deepened trade and investment ties with Indo-Pacific countries, is the best outcome that Europe can realistically achieve. How far this process of diversification will go – and whether it will materialize in a significant European contribution to the infrastructure development needs of the region – will be the main criteria against which to assess the success or the failure of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. This means that France will remain in a category of its own in Europe, as an Indo-Pacific resident power whose actions to defend its national interests contribute with shaping the regional security architecture. However, French leadership plans in Europe need some expectation management.
The Intangibles Stay
1.65 million French nationals in territories including New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Clipperton Island, Reunion Island, Mayotte, and the French Southern and Antarctic Lands; 10.2 million square kilometers of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the world’s second largest; 7,000 deployed military personnel, including on French Indian Ocean bases in Djibouti and the UAE: these are the traditional sovereignty and territorial integrity issues that make France a “resident power” of the Indo-Pacific.
Those territories do not face immediate threats. However, territorial disputes generate long-term challenges to the integrity of one million square kilometers of its EEZ. In the Pacific Ocean, Matthew and Hunter Islands, administered by New Caledonia but claimed by neighboring Vanuatu, generate an EEZ of 350,000 square kilometers. One such example of direct challenge to French legal rights in the country’s EEZ is a 2004 case in which the French Navy intercepted a Taiwanese fishing boat, which claimed that it was in a fishing zone authorized by the government of Vanuatu. In 2017, France responded to an illegal campaign by Vietnamese fishing boats in the EEZ of New Caledonia, leading to three judicial condemnations in Nouméa. In the Indian Ocean, France has a territorial dispute with Madagascar regarding the Scattered Islands – four islands which generate 640,000 square kilometers of EEZ for France in the Mozambique Channel, and that were attached to French overseas territories by a decree by President Charles de Gaulle in 1960, two months before the independence of Madagascar from France.
Could China support Madagascar and Vanuatu in exchange for access to fishing rights? This is not entirely a theoretical question. In the Indian Ocean, Paris perceived the short-lived 2019 agreement between Madagascar and a Chinese company to grant fishing rights in the island’s EEZ as a serious challenge for fishing resources management, given the scale of the announced US$2.7 billion (compared with €6.1 million paid by the EU to Madagascar as part of a 2015-2018 fishing deal). In the Pacific Ocean, the fishing industry is an area of booming cooperation between China and Vanuatu. French Polynesia manages its EEZ under a strict fishing resources protection regime that does not allow fishing activities by foreign vessels. Part of French Polynesia’s EEZ is located within the South Pacific’s tuna belt, which attracts fishing trawlers from East Asia. According to a 2022 report by the Cour des Comptes, a French supreme audit institution, the French state monitors foreign vessels fishing tuna in the vicinity of Polynesia’s EEZ. There was no reported intrusion by foreign vessels, even though 43 percent had Taiwanese registration, 33 percent Chinese registration, nine percent South Korean registration, and five percent Vanuatuan registration. Cour des Comptes’ audit report nevertheless recommends improving communication networks between the local fishing fleet, naval forces, and Tahiti’s maritime surveillance hub in order to prevent future threats against the EEZ.
Given the temporarily weakened surveillance capacity of the French state in those maritime spaces, the absence of reported illegal fishing in recent years is notable but should not be taken for granted. A 2022 Senate report compares the current French maritime patrol capacity in its EEZ to two police cars surveilling the whole French metropolitan territory. In the early 2020s, the French military is decommissioning old systems and deploying new ones in the Indo-Pacific region. Falcon 2000 maritime patrol airplanes will replace Falcon 200 in La Réunion, but not until 2025. Six maritime overseas patrol boats called Patrouilleur Outre-Mer (POM) will replace the ten P400 of the French Navy deployed in New Caledonia, La Réunion, and Polynesia between 2023 and 2025 – a replacement that creates a temporary capacity gap. The Senate report on French defense posture in the Indo-Pacific advocates additional POM deployments and the use of surveillance drones to increase maritime domain awareness in the French EEZ. To close the gaps in maritime surveillance, France also will need to further increase satellite coverage. The recent signing of the Trimaran 3 contract between the French Navy and a consortium of space imagery companies is a step in the right direction. In addition, space-based maritime surveillance has the potential to emerge as a concrete area of cooperation between France and the Quad, which announced last May a new satellite-based maritime domain awareness initiative. The format of French naval assets deployed in the Indo-Pacific region indicates the absolute priority placed on EEZ maritime security – and enables contributions to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, such as in Tonga after the January 2022 volcano eruption. In the 2030s, the French Navy may deploy a new class of frigates equipped with surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles – a capacity currently lacked by French naval assets in the Indo-Pacific, which limits their mission options.
These national “intangibles” connect to a vision of the international security order. To paraphrase former Armed Forces Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, challenges to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea pose a general threat to a maritime order based on international law everywhere, from the Arctic Ocean to the Indian Ocean – including to French sovereign maritime rights.
Europeanization Progresses Slowly
During the first half of 2022, France held the rotating presidency of the European Union. Accelerating the implementation of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy was a stated priority, was this achieved? An international context of events was clearly not favorable for France’s goal. The EU presidency came immediately after AUKUS, through which the Biden administration undermined French Indo-Pacific leadership in Europe. The formation of AUKUS in September 2021 signaled to EU Member States that the France-Australia security partnership, a pillar of French engagement in the Indo-Pacific, was essentially an obstacle to be removed for the US to achieve its own priorities in terms of military balance with China. A few months after the AUKUS shock, the French EU presidency also saw Russia launch its war of aggression against Ukraine, completely changing the national security debate in many European capitals.
Despite this context, France successfully raised the strategic profile of the Indo-Pacific in Europe by hosting in Paris the first Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in February 2022, in cooperation with the EU’s European External Action Service. Held a day before the launch of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the forum represented an inflexion point for France’s policy towards the Indo-Pacific.
Departing from France’s traditional focus on the maritime security order, the forum was conceived as a political manifesto in favor of multilateral diplomacy. Paris hosted 27 EU foreign ministers (or their representatives), around 30 from the Indo-Pacific region, and representatives of regional organizations from both the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. The decision not to extend an invitation to China (consistent with France’s previous approach) and the United States (more surprising) carried a political message: France seeks to lead Europe as a force opposing the transformation of the Indo-Pacific into a space defined by a bipolar US-China rivalry. This coincided with the apparition of the term “third way” in Paris. As the term evokes the Bandung neutralism of the early Cold War, by reference to the 1955 Asian-African Conference held in the Indonesian city which led to the creation of the non-aligned movement, it misled some into thinking that France was calling for a non-aligned Europe. In fact, the Ministerial Forum was consistent with the French thinking regarding Europe having a special space and added value in offering alternatives to countries in the Indo-Pacific that want to avoid being locked into a binary choice between China and the United States.
But what can Europe really offer? French diplomats described the forum’s political goal as reaching an “Indo-Pacific of concrete actions.” Turning the EU strategy into action at a multilateral forum is not an easy task, but several achievements deserve to be mentioned. The decision to open branches of the European Investment Bank in Nairobi, Jakarta, and Suva is a concrete step to support the implementation of the EU’s infrastructure investment plan (Global Gateways). The EU’s membership in the North Pacific Fisheries Commission is a step to play a greater role in regional fisheries management; protection of marine ecosystems; and the struggle against illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Finally, announcements regarding EU Critical Maritime Routes Indo-Pacific (CRIMARIO) and the EU project for Enhancing Security Cooperation in and with Asia (ESIWA) matter. These two projects may be small in scale, but they enhance the EU’s profile as a maritime soft security actor, which promotes regional cooperation dialogues and has a maritime situational awareness offer for Indo-Pacific states: the Indo-Pacific Regional Information Sharing (IORIS) platform, adopted already by some maritime law-enforcement agencies – most recently the Philippines.
The Ministerial Forum format may become a regular multilateral platform for concluding Europe and Indo-Pacific deals. While the Swedish EU presidency (first half of 2023) has not expressed interest in hosting the next convening, Spain may take over during the second half of 2023. For now, the current Czech presidency of the European Union already has demonstrated a willingness to actively support the implementation of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. A High-Level Dialogue on the Indo-Pacific took place June 13-14 in Prague, in preparation for the Czech Republic taking over the presidency of the EU during the second half of 2022. The involvement of NATO as a sponsor of this Prague Dialogue, along with the importance of bilateral ties with Taiwan for the Czech Republic, deliberately put in the spotlight the question of authoritarian threat to democratic systems, a political dimension relatively absent from the French approach to the Indo-Pacific. It suggests that the EU strategy is broad enough for states to emphasize their own political priorities.
But for all EU Member States, the most concrete stake is to use the strategic guidance of the Indo-Pacific vision to diversify trade and investment relations away from China and seize the opportunities to play a role to respond to the infrastructure needs of Indo-Pacific states. Table 1 shows how trade with China dwarfs trade volume with India, Japan, and ASEAN for the three upcoming presidents of the European Union, and three influential strategic players within the EU (Denmark, the Netherlands, and Poland). Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) stocks show a different picture. The cumulated stock of EU FDI in Japan, India, Australia, and Singapore exceeds EU FDI stock in China (including Hong Kong) – 6.4 percent of the total, versus 3.8 percent. Those numbers, however, are incomparable with European FDI stocks in the US and the UK (respectively 24.3 percent and 21.8 percent of the total) which points to the immense potential of the Indo-Pacific region to unlock growth for European companies at a time when political risk and unpredictability are on the rise in China.
Table 1: Comparing the Trade Volume of Key EU Member States with China, India, Japan, and ASEAN
The gap between the French focus on security and the maritime order, and a broader European focus on stepping up and diversifying engagement, will be a blessing in disguise if it leads all European countries to play on their strengths in the Indo-Pacific. EU Member States should not be expected to play a significant role in the Indo-Pacific security architecture beyond the small-scale projects carried out by the EU, such as CRIMARIO and Early Warning for Increased Situational Awareness (EWISA), and some naval deployments to demonstrate their commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Which European NATO countries provide direct military support to the United States as part of a coalition in case of war in the Indo-Pacific is a completely different question, for which the EU is not particularly relevant, except to reach common positions at the European Council. Therefore, France should be expected to remain lonely in its focus on territorial defense. This peculiarity will continue to make France a credible partner for countries in the region for which a maritime order based on UNCLOS matters directly and concretely.
Whether the Indo-Pacific will become a sea of opportunities for Europe depends on the capacity of EU Member States, the EU, and European multinational companies to respond to the infrastructure development needs of the region. Enabling Indo-Pacific partners to remain in the best position in order to avoid the trap of excessive dependence and the risk of coercion is a solid political idea, but the real political issue today is the question of implementation of actual projects. There are some positive examples in the area of submarine cables. But examples like this are too few and not sufficiently visible. Europe needs to prioritize signature projects that deliver fast results, in order to demonstrate to the Indo-Pacific region that it can support infrastructure development plans conceived locally. Multilateralism has a role to play in creating a positive dynamic, in generalizing agreements and consensus building in smaller formats, and also in keeping the focus on broad issues of global governance. While multilateralism provides a platform to conclude deals and send political messages throughout the world, it is however definitely not a silver bullet for Europe to make a real difference in the Indo-Pacific.
Dr. Duchâtel wrote in his personal capacity. The views and interpretations expressed by the author are solely his own.
Dr. Mathieu Duchâtel is Director of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne since 2019. Before joining the Institute, he was Senior Policy Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia and China Program at the European Council of Foreign Relations (2015-2018), Senior Researcher and the Representative in Beijing of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2011-2015), Research Fellow with Asia Centre in Paris (2007-2011) and Associate Researcher based in Taipei with Asia Centre (2004-2007). He has spent a total of nine years in Shanghai (Fudan University), Taipei (National Chengchi University) and Beijing and has been visiting scholar at the School of International Studies of Peking University in 2011/2012 and the Japan Institute of International Affairs in 2015. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po, Paris).
For Institut Montaigne, he recently authored The Weak Links in China’s Drive for Semiconductors (January 2021), Fighting COVID-19: East Asian Responses to the Pandemic (May 2020, with François Godement and Viviana Zhu), and Europe and 5G: the Huawei Case (May 2019, with François Godement).
Other recent publications include Blue China, Navigating the Maritime Silk Road to Europe (2018), Géopolitique de la Chine, Paris, PUF, Que Sais-Je ? (2017), Pre-empting defeat: In search of North Korea’s nuclear doctrine (2017), Influence by default: Europe’s impact on military security in East Asia (2017), China’s Policy in the East China Sea, The Role of Crisis Management Mechanism Negotiations with Japan (2008-2015) (2016), Terror overseas: understanding China’s evolving counter-terror strategy (2016), Into Africa: China’s global security shift (2016), Xi’s army: Reform and loyalty in the PLA (2016), China’s Strong Arm, Protecting Nationals and Assets Abroad, IISS-Routledge (2015).
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 Mathieu Duchâtel and Roderick Kefferpütz, “Balancing China in the Indo-Pacific, the role of France and Germany,” Institut Montaigne, February 21, 2022, https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/balancing-china-indo-pacific-role-france-and-germany.
 Author’s interview with senior French participant, Paris, February 22, 2022.
 “Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” French Presidency of the European Union, press release, February 22, 2022, https://presidence-francaise.consilium.europa.eu/en/news/press-release-forum-for-cooperation-in-the-indopacific/.
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 “EU’s net investment position -33% in 2020,” Eurostat, European Commission, February 11, 2022, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/ddn-20220210-1.