French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly made a splash with her speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore at the start of the month. As Abhijnan Rej, The Diplomat’s new South Asian security contributor, noted in a recent column, she presented a call to action that was “trenchant, humorous, and combative.”
Parly reminded the dialogue that she wasn’t in Singapore alone: She’d brought the FS Charles de Gaulle, the French Navy’s only aircraft carrier, in tow. The carrier, currently on an extended Indo-Pacific deployment, was docked as she spoke at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base; two days later it would join the Republic of Singapore Navy for exercises. The vessel was a symbol of France’s power projection capabilities in the region.
I was fortunate to be in Singapore for this year’s Dialogue and, while I share the assessment that Parly’s speech was among the highlights of the plenaries, there was a broader palpable sense of confusion among the events’ Asian delegates about France’s insistence that it was inherently an Indo-Pacific power.
At the center of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is a seemingly uncontroversial assertion: France is an Indo-Pacific power because it has 1.5 million citizens living in the region and more than 9 million square kilometers of exclusive economic zone. Moreover, some 200,000 French nationals live in the countries of the Indo-Pacific. The population and EEZ figure alone are impressive, with the latter being the region’s largest.
Despite these facts, several Southeast Asian attendees of the dialogue found the French justification for an Indo-Pacific presence as unconvincing, given that the territories Paris talks up as justification represent, in effect, an enduring French colonial legacy more than anything else in the region. For Paris, I suspect the value of emphasizing these territories and the French citizens that live there is a compelling narrative to justify expeditionary deployments domestically, but this perception in Asia is worth underscoring.
Separately, there is a disconnect between France’s stated reasons for being in the Indo-Pacific and the specific patterns of deployments undertaken by the French Navy. What stands out about the French Indo-Pacific constellation of territories and their attendant EEZ is that, with the exception of the far-flung territory of Clipperton near Mexico, all of French territory and EEZ is south of the equator. (See the official French map here in an official handout on Paris and the Indo-Pacific; page 3.)
However, one look at France’s most recent deployments shows that the French Navy has focused most of its efforts north of the equator, in the Indo-Pacific’s logical hotspots, including the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula, where French assets have been involved in the enforcement of United Nations Security Council resolution 2375’s provisions barring illicit ship-to-ship transfers by North Korea.
This isn’t necessarily a problem. The charm of the rules-based order, after all, is that it has a universal nature and powers outside of the Indo-Pacific can play a role in upholding it. The United Kingdom, for instance, has made the Royal Navy’s rotations through the South China Sea contingent on the rights afforded to all countries under international law. While Parly and other French officials have also stated Paris’ commitment to these same principles as a motivating factor in Paris’ interest in the Indo-Pacific, the appeals to an inherent French territoriality in the Indo-Pacific appear to have fallen flat in Asia.
A final thought is that this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue may well have taken on a rather different identity: One focused on the role of extraregional powers in the Indo-Pacific. Last year, on Bastille Day, French President Emanuel Macron had accepted an invitation from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the host organization of the Shangri-La Dialogue, to deliver the keynote speech at the address. Macron eventually withdrew amid domestic instability in France, but had he come through, the main theme of this year’s dialogue may less have been about how medium- and small-sized countries can survive amid great power rivalry in Asia, and more about how France — and Europe more broadly — might play a role.
At the end of the day, France’s Indo-Pacific commitments appear clear enough. Parly made plain the fact that Paris would be in the Indo-Pacific to stay. That sense was definitely palpable standing on the deck of the FS Charles de Gaulle in Singapore.