The Indo-Pacific has become, under the presidency ofEmmanuel Macron, a quasi-identity signature of French foreign policy. A “resident power”, strong in its sovereign territories and 10 million km2 of exclusive economic zone, France is striving to drag the European Union along in its wake. She has shaped a pioneering vision of the Indo-Pacific, which can be described as emancipatory in that it consists of reducing the centrality of China in its Asian policy, and building a healthier balance through ambitious partnerships. with India and Japan, tomorrow maybe with Indonesia, and again with Australia. Its naval presence in support of the law of the sea is regular there, including in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, where China continues to question it. And no other European navy could choose to deploy a nuclear attack submarine there, in order to demonstrate to its allies what its contribution could be in times of crisis.
All of this is both convincing and admirable. And yet. French policy suffers from a lack of credibility with its partners, which is due to three factors.
A lack of clarity
First, despite speeches, declarations and official documents, an absence of clarity of the French line remains. We would like to believe in Paris that we can only get out of ambiguity at its expense. But isn’t there a tipping point at which ambiguity serves the national interest? Wasn’t it already achieved during the President of the Republic’s state visit to China? A visit that “justifies the AUKUS”, underlined a bad Australian language, however very influential. The Indo-Pacific only has a purpose as a counterweight to the expansion of China’s economic and naval power.
Diplomatic language may seek to soften this message, but no foreign policy would need an Indo-Pacific framework if China did not work to build a China-centric order there. In this context, the dissonance between a presidential speech which constantly suggests a “third way” and the reality of French policy in terms of maritime security or balancing partnerships is not only incomprehensible, it creates unnecessary risks for defense and progress. French interests wherever distrust of Chinese intentions thrives – in other words, across the region.
The issue of the exclusive economic zone
Second, France’s current ability to monitor its exclusive economic zone is comparable to “two gendarmerie cars patrolling France”, in the words of a Senate report. The military programming law currently being debated in the National Assembly will safeguard the renewal of the fleet of maritime patrol boats, helicopters and transport planes. The limitations of naval air capabilities can be compensated to a certain extent by space surveillance capabilities; a fleet of drones can also contribute to reducing this capacity deficit.
It is true that so far there is simply no intrusion of illegal fishermen into the EEZ of the Pacific Ocean and therefore no urgency is felt in Paris. The fact remains that the prevention of future risks depends on strengthened maritime security partnerships with Australia, India, the United States and Japan.
Difficulties in integrating economically into a regional project
Third, French policy fails to project itself into an economic logic. The Indo-Pacific emanates from a French geopolitical vision of maritime security. It is normal to build from this living heart. But offering a credible response to regional infrastructure demand (transport, energy, digital) can make the difference. Japan is leading by example, surpassing China in terms of cumulative financing of projects in ASEAN countries, most often in the form of loans. France does not have the critical size to make the difference on its own. But its Indo-Pacific policy ignores the nevertheless measurable presence of numerous French companies in major projects, from submarine cables to offshore wind projects in South Korea and Taiwan, from photovoltaic parks in India to urban transport in many capitals of the area, from the development of the Port of Los Angeles to the renovation of the Sihanoukville airport.
French companies most often have a national and bilateral vision of the Indo-Pacific. They think of an Indonesian project, not a regional project. This is the logical result of the operational realities of setting up in third countries. However, one cannot help but think that political ambiguity contributes to this state of affairs – the Indo-Pacific policy pursued by Paris is simply not perceived as being in the interest of companies, nor as creating opportunities. Our diplomacy would benefit from better embodying the reality of this presence, and from working with companies on signature projects in a logic of influence.
The preparation by the European Commission of an economic security strategy, of which a first communication is expected for June 21, is an opportunity not to be missed to bring together Indo-Pacific and economic diplomacy. When we strip the Indo-Pacific of all superfluous language, which often repeats for this geographical area the objectives already pursued by France and the EU (green transition, connectivity, human security, digital partnerships), there remains the opportunity for a necessary diversification of our partnerships, in order to reduce our exposure to the risks linked to China’s ambitions.
Mathieu Duchâtel is the author of a note on the issues for the Institut Montaigne entitled ” The credibility of France in the Indo-Pacific: first tracks (May 2023).