Flashpoints | Security

France’s Innovative Maritime Security Engagement in the Indo-Pacific

With a wide range of activities and capabilities, France is making contributions to maritime security throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

By Nicolas Regaud for
France’s Innovative Maritime Security Engagement in the Indo-Pacific
Credit: Pixabay

In July, France will take over the chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium for 2020-22. The first summit meeting, to be held in La Réunion, was postponed from late June to November. France’s chairmanship is an important symbol of the growing regional integration of French territories in the Indian and Pacific oceans, encouraged by Paris, and of the growing importance of maritime security issues in French strategy in the Indo-Pacific. The main reasons of the latter are threefold.

First, with nearly 2 million nationals living in the region and an EEZ of 9 million square kilometers, the protection of national maritime spaces and their resources constitutes a fundamental mission of the 7,000 French soldiers deployed permanently on five bases (La Réunion, Djibouti, Abu Dhabi, Nouméa, Papeete), notwithstanding naval forces sent on a regular base from metropolitan France.

Second, anxious to contribute to the security of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through which passes a third of its foreign trade (excluding intra-EU exchanges), France was at the initiative of the European operation Atalanta to fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and its periphery, which has greatly contributed to the reduction of the threat. Drawing on this experience and that drawn from its commitment to the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, it has embarked on a diplomatic-legal process intended to enable it to soon join the ReCAAP agreement.

Third and finally, as recalled by successive defense ministers at the Shangri-La Dialogue, France intends to defend freedom of navigation and overflight in international spaces where it is undermined or threatened, in particular by a regular naval presence, such as in the South China Sea or more recently by taking the initiative of a European maritime surveillance mission in the Gulf (EMASOH – European-led mission Awareness Strait of Hormuz).

France’s commitment to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific seems to revolve around three main axes: contributing to a regional maritime domain awareness (MDA) architecture; participating in regional cooperation fora and the establishment of global dialogues with the major maritime powers; and capacity building and environmental security anticipation.

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Supporting MDA Architecture

Because of the multiplicity and the increase of maritime risks and threats (the fight against illicit activities, environmental protection, search and rescue), international cooperation should contribute to the development of capacities which must naturally be based on education, training and naval assets acquisition, and above all on MDA. This is why France has deployed liaison officers to maritime information fusion centers (IFC) in the region (IFC in Singapore and IFC-IOR near New Delhi), helped set up the Regional Maritime IFC in Madagascar – funded by the EU – and taken in charge of the EU’s Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa (MSC-HoA) to assist Operation Atalanta after Brexit. 

The involvement of the French Navy in the world’s main maritime theaters and in these regional IFCs has thus led to the publication of the first report of the Maritime Information & Awareness Center (MICA Center) in Brest on acts of piracy and robbery around the world, providing a useful statistical and analytical instrument for all maritime stakeholders. The stated objective is to support the interconnection of maritime IFCs and the development of a global maritime picture from the Atlantic to the eastern Pacific.

Participating in the Regional Maritime Security Architecture

A full member of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and IONS, France is also involved with its Australian, American and New Zealand partners in a a military cooperation structure focused on maritime security, in order to coordinate efforts to support Pacific Island countries. In 2019, France also joined HACGAM (Heads of Asian Coast Guards Agencies Meeting) as an observer and applied to participate in two ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Groups, including the one devoted to maritime security. The future will tell whether the ASEAN countries, which have welcomed this objective, will manage to find a solution to the blockage noted in 2019 due to the opposition of two “plus countries.”

In the Indian Ocean, France is a founding member of the Indian Ocean Commission, alongside the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles, whose maritime security activities have intensified in recent years. As a dialogue partner of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), France also hopes to be able to soon join as a full member this organization, which makes maritime security and the blue economy priority areas of action.

Finally, France has established specific maritime dialogues with the major powers in the region, in particular India, Japan and soon with Indonesia, which allow maritime issues to be addressed in broad formats, multidomain and interdepartmental, and to foster the development of cooperation in new fields.

A Technologically Innovative Partner, at the Forefront of Climate Security

In the broad context of intensifying U.S.-China rivalry leading a rising polarization most Indo-Pacific countries are opposed to, France is often viewed as offering a way to escape this dilemma, including in the politically sensitive arms market. In the maritime domain, French high-tech products and its long experience in technology transfer are widely recognized, as illustrated when India, Malaysia and more recently Australia have turned to French-designed submarines.

In the field of maritime surveillance, the space capacities developed by several French companies deserve to be noted because they are for unique, in particular those relating to the analysis of high resolution optical and radar satellite images (CLS, Airbus Defense & Space) or the collection and processing of electro-magnetic data (UnseenLabs.space) which makes it possible to overcome the voluntary shutdown of AIS type identification systems of ships participating in illicit activities.

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France is also innovative in the field of climate security, where it initiated and coordinated a joint study on the consequences of climate change on defense and security in the South Pacific (in particular on maritime security, HADR operations and critical coastal infrastructures). The report and recommendations were adopted by the South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting in May 2019. A comparable initiative has been launched between France and Australia devoted to the Indian Ocean, which also aims to anticipate climate change security impact and identify the means of collective action in terms of prevention or adaptation. As a consequence, it would make sense for France to introduce climate security in the work to be carried out soon by IONS, which would be a first in the region.

Dr. Nicolas Regaud joined IRSEM in January 2020 as director for international development. As part of the management team, he leads the development of IRSEM’s international activities contributing to both the scientific cooperation and the international influence of the institute. He is also conducting research on strategic issues in the Indo-Pacific, climate security, strategic foresight and maritime security.