France Is Looking for New Allies in Asia
Eager to project its power in the Indo-Pacific, the country has doubled down on Japan and India.
French President Emmanuel Macron paid his first official visit to Tokyo last month, reflecting his commitment to step up his country’s bilateral relations with Japan. Although French-Japanese ties are advancing on all fronts, the most promising area of cooperation is in maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Although France may not be a prominent player in the realm now, that is set to change in the coming years. Its effectiveness will depend on its willingness to coordinate with others, in particular Japan and India.
For French strategists, the Indo-Pacific is pivotal. Some of the country’s overseas territories and about 90 percent of its exclusive economic zone are located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. As many as 8,000 of its soldiers are stationed in the region, and France continues to maintain a number of military facilities there, including in Reunion.
France risks a declining profile in the Indo-Pacific, though, in the face of China’s maritime expansion, rising constraints on the freedom of navigation, and a spurt of terrorist activities inspired by the Islamic State. Not helping matters is increasing pressure on resources for maritime security at home. In the Indo-Pacific, however, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been promoting multilateralism, which gives France an opportunity to redefine its vision to promote a stable and multipolar order in the region.
France has paid close attention to improving its ties with India, a country it has long considered as an important partner. Although mired in controversies, New Delhi’s decision in 2015 to buy 36 Rafale combat aircraft off-the-shelf from Dassault, the French aircraft builder and integrator, is but one example of deepening Indo-French strategic ties. And during Macron’s visit to New Delhi in March 2018, the two sides signed an agreement on logistical support between the militaries, including providing refueling, repair, and berthing facilities to each other’s warships and aircrafts.
Indo-French military exercises have also become increasingly frequent. The first Indo-French bilateral naval exercise was held in 1983. In 2001, the effort was renamed Varuna. Since then, annual joint exercises, held either in the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, have expanded in scope, culminating in the deployment of aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, and auxiliary vessels. Representative of the strong relationship was the 17th naval exercise, which concluded in May and was billed as the largest-ever exercise undertaken between the two navies.
Macron has also proposed creating a new strategic alliance among Australia, India, and France to respond to growing Chinese assertiveness. During his visit to Australia in 2018, the French president advocated making the “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” an established regional structure in the Indo-Pacific, in effect calling for the creation of an official platform with significant strategic investment for power projection. “We’re not naive,” he said in a speech at an Australian naval base, “if we want to be seen and respected by China as an equal partner, we must organize ourselves.”
Now, France seems to have identified Japan as another key partner. It—perhaps more than any other country—is worried about a dominant China, which is why its security cooperation with France has been expanding as well. In July 2018, they signed an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement to allow the sharing of defense supplies and services. And with Tokyo trying to diversify its security partnerships beyond Washington, it has begun to hold exercises with Paris and with New Delhi.
Coming on the heels of a multilateral exercise in May that saw Japanese naval ships sail with counterparts from India, the Philippines, and the United States in the South China Sea, a Japanese helicopter carrier joined vessels from the Australian, French, and U.S. navies in the Indian Ocean. The foreign and defense ministers of Japan and France have also agreed to launch a new bilateral framework to discuss maritime security and environmental issues, with the first meeting likely to be held by the end of this year.
As it deepens its partnerships with India and Japan to counter Chinese assertiveness, France is wary of fully alienating China. While outlining the latest Indo-Pacific strategy in early June, the French minister of the armed forces, Florence Parly, noted that Paris believes in strengthening strategic and global partnerships in the region “with China, an essential partnership which requires greater reciprocity, including via the European Union, both in the framework of confident and constructive political dialogue and in deepening economic and trade relations and human exchanges.” France’s ambivalence about China has also made it hesitant to completely endorse the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy Japan espouses, which offers an alternative to China’s largely coercive approach on regional connectivity and economic linkages.
France still sees the merit in encouraging China to be a responsible stakeholder in global governance. It would like to offer an alternative to the ASEAN countries that do not want to be trapped in the rivalry between the United States and China. For its part, ASEAN insists that it is not anti-China even as it wants to restrain U.S. security presence in the region, a balance France is keen to maintain.
Tokyo may not be fully on board with France’s hedging approach, but it still would rather work with France where it seeks to contain China than work around it. For example, the French commitment to a rules-based order and freedom of navigation, antithetical to the Chinese vision of global governance, is a solid building block for Japanese alignment with France. France’s increased interest in playing a greater role in regional organizations to promote multilateralism, a direct blow to China’s hegemonic tendencies, also contributes to Japan’s enthusiasm for France. Similarly, even though India has increased engagement with China as a hedge, New Delhi remains suspicious of Beijing.
Differences aside, it would be worth France, India, and Japan beginning an institutionalized and wide-ranging dialogue to ensure that the three of them can better coordinate their activities in the Indo-Pacific, not necessarily to counter China but to encourage it to cooperate. India, Japan, and France have limited resources to defend their interests, so it makes strategic sense to create strong partnerships. It is time these states deepened their discussions to bring greater convergence to their visions for the regional security architecture. Given their common interest in enhancing good governance toward supporting a liberal and democratic region, this should not be very difficult.
India, Japan, and France may not be fully aligned in the Indo-Pacific, but they agree enough to work together to promote a stable, prosperous, and inclusive regional order.
Harsh V. Pant is director of research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, and professor of international relations at King’s College London.