The United States and France should turn to building upon a key dimension of their bilateral interests in the Indo-Pacific as the new decade begins. Although the two allies are usually discussed in the transatlantic rather than the Indo-Pacific context, no other country besides the United States is as global a power as France is. Its strategic interests and military missions extend from Europe to the Middle East to Africa and to Asia.
After the United States, France has the second-largest exclusive economic zone in the world. It has overseas territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well as nationals to protect. It has military bases in the western Indian Ocean — from East Africa to the Persian Gulf — and in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, the United States is a Pacific nation and has basing facilities across the Indian Ocean from Bahrain to Djibouti, Diego Garcia, and Singapore. As a result, while their equities in Europe and Africa grab headlines, both countries should begin a deep, long-term examination of their shared concerns and interests regarding stability in the Indo-Pacific theater and build on existing cooperation.
Missed Opportunity to Document Shared Interests
U.S.-China competition is front and center for U.S. national security policymakers. Government strategy documents assert that the United States has entered a new era of great power competition with regard to China and needs help from its allies to counter this threat. Yet, in U.S. government strategy documents, France’s role in the Indo-Pacific region is insufficiently acknowledged. In the 2017 National Security Strategy, France is mentioned only once in a list of European allies that have experienced terrorism. In the unclassified summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, France is not mentioned at all by name. Only NATO is discussed in the context of Europe.
Although there are mentions of “allies and partners” in both documents, France not being mentioned with regard to the Indo-Pacific is a missed opportunity due to the significant overlap in bilateral interests in this region. The Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released in June 2019 appears to address this omission by mentioning some of France’s activities: the country’s regional strategy, deployment of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, and commitment to operations enforcing UN Security Council sanctions. Yet the Department of State’s November 2019 report “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision” again omits any mention of France’s critical role in this theater.
Whereas U.S. strategy documents speak of the re-emergence of great-power competition and the need to strengthen alliances and develop new partnerships to address this challenge, France emphasizes the bilateral nature of this competition — thereby distancing itself from U.S.-China rivalry to some extent. In the 2019 English-translation of France’s Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific, the United States is discussed as being an ally, but the document describes a “global strategic competition” between the U.S. and China. Interestingly, the challenge posed by China is acknowledged much more indirectly. France discusses the grey zone threat in the Indo-Pacific without calling out China’s name. In the 2019 English translation of France and Security in the Indo-Pacific, Paris is a bit more direct by calling out reclamation and militarization activities in the South China Sea and the lack of respect for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the “China seas.” Yet again, China is not called out by name.
The NATO declaration closing out the 70th anniversary meeting in December resulted in a milquetoast sentence on the entry of China into the European theater: “We recognize that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” However, as leaders in the NATO alliance, the United States and France should develop a stronger bilateral understanding of shared threats in multiple regions. Increased coordination in the Indo-Pacific is critical given the Eurasian scope of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including interests in European ports.
One shared concern is over military basing. While China’s economic and strategic activities are not as developed in Europe as they are in the Indo-Pacific, and are therefore not arousing as much suspicion, it is clear that France is concerned about maintaining its ability to operate from bases, as well as disruptions to international law. In particular, France is alarmed by China’s growing military presence in Djibouti. Indeed, “the co-location of their forces in Djibouti” is mentioned in France’s Indo-Pacific Defense Strategy document. This is a country where France has historically maintained military forces, while the U.S. developed a military presence there a decade ago, and other nations — including China — have since. A U.S. admiral has openly discussed threats to international airspace and U.S. air force personnel by China in Djibouti. If these actions recur, France could issue a statement denouncing such potentially fatal activity given its own base nearby.
Moreover, France will assume the chair of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) starting early in 2020 through 2022. In this role, it could re-emphasize its concern about the grey zone activities discussed in its strategy document. For its part, the French Navy has transited the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to demonstrate this right as permitted by international law. Florence Parly, minister of France’s Armed Forces, affirmed this intention during her speech at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. At this same event, the then-Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan mentioned the role of U.S. allies beginning with France in “asserting navigational rights and upholding the international rule of law.” Thus, both countries clearly agree on the primacy of overflight and passage in the global commons as permitted by international law.
Beyond these proximate issues, how can the United States and France cooperate on their shared concerns about disruptions to stability in the Indo-Pacific over the next decade? First, they could prioritize developing more of a shared approach to articulating their concerns about China, even if they have differences over the sources of tensions. Second, China’s success in the region has, in part, taken place due to the receptivity of its development assistance model, which includes infrastructure project financing and construction dating back even prior to the BRI branding.
What can the U.S. and France do to shape this environment of developing countries that China appeals to? For example, Japan and the EU have signed an agreement that promotes infrastructure financing in developing countries. The United States, Australia, and Japan have worked out a similar arrangement. The U.S. and France could consider a bilateral arrangement where the two countries — often competitors on international defense sales — cooperate on infrastructure finance solutions to developing countries. The more that advanced economies do to create such arrangements that benefit developing countries, the more they show the value of the liberal economic order, in addition to the international legal order. By identifying long-term steps such as these, the United States and France can begin to tap the potential of their relationship in the Indo-Pacific region.
Nilanthi Samaranayake is Director of the Strategy and Policy Analysis program at CNA, a nonprofit research organization in the Washington area. The views expressed are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which she is affiliated.