Less than a month after her appearance at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue – in a noted panel of exclusively female defense ministers – new French Defense Minister Sylvie Goulard has resigned, involved in a complex case of political party funding. Goulard was known for her strong European focus; the validation by the EU of a European defense fund could be one of the significant contributions of her brief mission.
But this very European focus could also appear as a limit in the strategic vision of France, in contrast with the Holland presidency, which had been a real success in Asia. Emmanuel Macron’s trip to Mali, only four days after he became president, to support the mission of French troops in Africa, stressed a significant refocusing on France’s traditional theaters of interest: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. This refocusing is understandable in the context of a terrorist threat that does not falter, and at a time when budgetary constraints weigh on the definition of priorities.
However, expectations regarding France’s role in the Asia-Pacific region — an area where French interests are significant — are important. There will be disappointment if France chooses to put its strategic priorities exclusively nearer home.
The Asia-Pacific region is characterized by a complex mix of apparent stability and deep strategic uncertainties. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), despite its successes, faces economic and political challenges that worry the leadership; Beijing is trying to respond through grandiose but vaguely-defined projects like the “One Belt, One Road” (or simply Belt and Road) Initiative and exacerbated nationalist rhetoric.
The United States, the cornerstone of stability and security in the region, has itself become a source of greater ambiguity. In the Korean peninsula, the risks of war are no longer a mere hypothesis. In this context, Japan, the world’s third largest economy, India, and major countries in Southeast Asia are looking for partnerships and external support even more than before.
All this explains why the strong speech by then-Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2016 was so warmly welcomed. As a global power, with territories in the Pacific and a real power projection capability, connected with the region thanks to significant military cooperation, France strongly affirmed its commitment to the respect for international law and universal norms, freedom of navigation, and against the use of force or any kind of coercion.
Le Drian’s speech was the result of a thorough analysis of the strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific. As the minister emphasized: “Security in the Asia-Pacific is not a theoretical problem for France.” Of course, the speech met France’s interests in a region that absorbs over 30 percent of its arms exports. But it also signaled to all French partners in the region a genuine commitment to engagement beyond the traditional “comfort zone” of the French military.
In 2017, Goulard’s speech in Singapore took up these elements of language, but with less strength. Soft power and climate issues – that conveniently facilitate partnership with China – seemed to outweigh the hard security challenges that the region is facing. Signals Goulard’s speech gave to the region regarding France’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific area raised questions.
The neo-Gaullism of the new French president, under the influence of advisers like Jean-Pierre Raffarin or Emmanuel Lenain, well known for their China tropism, could translate into a limited vision of the Asia-Pacific. The PRC could regain its position as the main partner and core subject of interest for France, despite its disruptive role and the expectations of other actors in the region.
In the same line, the condemnation by Macron, in an interview given to eight European newspapers on the sidelines of the EU summit on June 22, of the “imported neo-conservatism” of those who want to “impose democracy from outside” can only please Beijing, even though the remark was directed to the situation in Iraq, Libya, or Syria.
In that context, it remains to be seen if the appointment of Florence Parly as minister of defense will remove all doubts. The choice of Parly seems to have been based on her budgetary expertise and the necessity to maintain the gender balance within the government more than on her familiarity with global strategic affairs. However, Le Drian’s position as foreign minister may help to rebalance France’s strategic priorities toward more global issues, and reassure French partners in the Asia-Pacific region.
Valerie Niquet is head of the Asia program at the Foundation for Strategic Research and a senior visiting research fellow, JIIA. The views presented in this paper are exclusively those of the author.