In the recent years, France has deftly positioned itself as a major security and defense player in the Indo-Pacific. Largely by virtue of its considerable strategic real estate in the mega-region, in the Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean, Paris is increasingly becoming the partner of choice for many other regional powers who have sought to diversify their partnerships in that strategic theater in face of Chinese intransigence as well as U.S. policy uncertainty in the past. In turn, France has doubled down on a multilateral approach to the region’s security challenges, whether those emanating from terrorism or increasing Chinese maritime overreach. With a range of exercises as well as a permanent sustained French military presence in the region, France’s turn towards the Indo-Pacific appears substantially more robust than that of its peer European powers, Germany and the United Kingdom in particular.
In an email interview with The Diplomat’s Security & Defense Editor Abhijnan Rej, Rear Admiral Jean-Mathieu Rey, the joint commander of French armed forces in the Asia-Pacific, outlines Paris’ Indo-Pacific security approach, detailing the various French military activities on the horizon as well as the overarching strategic objectives behind them. Rey also describes France’s many security partnerships in the region, its interest in meeting transnational challenges, and its ability to shape Europe’s approach towards the Indo-Pacific. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Could you give us a sense of the activities French armed forces have planned over the course of the year in the Indo-Pacific? Tell us a little bit more about the 2021 La Pérouse exercise in the Bay of Bengal, and its significance as a “Quad Plus” event.
As a nation of the Indo-Pacific, France operates in the area, thanks to its permanent-based military assets, which are composed of 7,000 defense personnel, 15 warships and 38 aircraft. Those assets, whose primary mission is the protection of French territory, are regularly reinforced by specialized units, coming from France mainland. In that framework, the French carrier strike group around nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has operated in the Pacific in 2019 and is currently doing so in Indian Ocean. Few weeks ago, the nuclear-powered attack submarine Emeraude conducted a long deployment from its Toulon base up to the Pacific to underline France commitment in the area. Even if the Indo-Pacific is mostly a maritime area, French activity also includes aircraft deployments, such as the Skyros mission conducted by the French Air and Space Force to India few weeks ago, which was conducted by four Rafale aircraft, two A400M (long-range logistic aircraft), and one A330 (tanker). A similar mission, named Pegase, had been conducted in Southeast Asia in 2018 and another will occur this year around French Polynesia and Hawaii.
Today, the cadet training and amphibious task group Jeanne d’Arc is operating in the Indo-Pacific. LHD [landing helicopter dock] Tonnerre and frigate Surcouf have a double mission. The first deals with the finalization at sea of the cadet initial training, mostly French officers but also including partners’ cadets. The second mission is part of the French strategy in the Indo-Pacific to ensure the regular presence I mentioned above and to strengthen regional partnerships.
The La Pérouse exercise has been so conducted by the Jeanne d’Arc task group in the Bay of Bengal last week to enhance interoperability with France’s main partners, which are the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. Such exercises are excellent opportunities for our respective units to train together, with the intention to heighten the level of our bilateral and multilateral partnerships and to demonstrate our ability to operate together in the area. However, France is not part of the Quad organization.
The Jeanne d’Arc task group will keep operating in the area for three months and will participate in an important amphibious exercise named ARC21 in Japan, alongside Japanese and American forces. It will enhance France’s presence in the region and convey a message of cooperation and interoperability between France, the U.S., and Japan.
What are the areas of focus for French forces in the region? Combating terrorism is a key component of the French Indo-Pacific strategic posture. In what ways could major regional powers cooperate on counterterrorism operations?
As French joint commander in the Pacific, my first concern is to ensure the protection of French territories, population, and interests and to preserve the French capacity of action, in order to maintain a safe environment, beneficial for everyone. This is indeed my main priority. The publication of the French Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific in 2019 was part of this logic.
My second objective is to contribute to the security of regional areas surrounding our overseas territories. It implies engaging in favor of the freedom of navigation, to struggle against nuclear proliferation, to strengthen multilateral mechanisms that are essential to maintain regional stability, and to support regional countries to fight against the mosaic of existing threats, which includes illegal trafficking, piracy, environmental and climatic hazards, over-fishing, cyber and maritime terrorism.
To face those various threats together, France is fully engaged in cooperation about Maritime Domain Awareness. In order to achieve the best possible knowledge of activities at sea in Asia-Pacific, France’s ambition is to promote bilateral and multilateral partnerships such as Information Fusion Centers (IFC) in Singapore, India, or Madagascar, with French liaison officers present there since their respective creation. This knowledge is also reinforced by the French maritime and diplomatic community, as well as warships and aircraft operating in the area. France had, in particular, created in 2016 the MICA (Maritime Information Cooperation & Awareness) center, with aims to share permanently maritime information and analysis all over the world through an international maritime network.
France also attends strategic level dialogues with regional countries in the region, and actively participates in many regional organizations in order to discuss all regional issues and especially counterterrorism, such as:
- IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium), with some Southeast Asian countries that border the Indian Ocean. The Chief of Staff of the French Navy will assume the presidency of IONS this year at the end of June;
- Shangri-La Dialogue at our Ministry of Army level every year, an essential moment in the regional panorama;
- CHODs [chief of defense staff] meetings. An annual meeting of CHODs has been organized by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command since 1998. France has been a member since 2003;
- WPNS (Western Pacific Naval Symposium) created by Australia in 1988.
- PACIOS (Pacific and Indian Ocean Shipping) working group, which will be held this year in Papeete [capital of French Polynesia].
How would you assess the trajectory of French Indo-Pacific strategy and progress so far?
Since President Emmanuel Macron’s Garden Island speech [in Sydney] in 2018 and the 2019 Shangri-La dialogue where the France’s Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific was published, France’s commitment to the security in Indo-Pacific is now very concrete and clear, and France intends to assume strongly its international responsibilities. In a strategic context focused on the growing competition between the U.S. and China, France could be a credible alternative for many countries in Southeast Asia thanks to its status as permanent member of the United-Nation Security Council (UNSC) and its forces of [military] presence and sovereign territory, permanently based in Indo-Pacific and reinforced by regular deployments of metropolitan [mainland] resources. In addition, the French tradition of cooperation implies a high volume of cooperative activities. The partnerships we have with the United States, India, Australia, Japan, but also Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam enhance France action in the area through a multilateral approach, which is essential for promoting dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution.
Preserving regional stability means also to develop interoperability and to be able to conduct coordinated operations like off North Korea’s coasts, where we conduct national operations supporting the UNSC resolutions, in close coordination with partners.
Furthermore, we are working more and more in support of humanitarian and environmental security, including with the Pacific Islands Countries (PICs), through Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) cooperation with mechanisms like FRANZ (France-Australia-New-Zealand) agreement or by multilateral exercises like the Marara or Croix du Sud exercises. France also contributes to regional coordination with our liaison officer in the Regional HADR Coordination Center (RHCC) of Singapore.
In the past, President Macron has spoken about a “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” which he described as being “absolutely key for the region and our joint objectives in the Indian-Pacific region.” How would you describe the state of French forces’ interactions with the Australian military as well as the Indian armed forces?
I should have started by describing our French military organization in Indo-Pacific. As ALPACI, I am in charge of planning and conducting French joint operation in the Pacific. My counterpart for the Indian Ocean is ALINDIEN and is based in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He is, in particular, in charge of the military relationship with India.
Regarding Australia, it is true that we have had a significant increase in our bilateral cooperation since a few years. France now has a strategic relationship and trust with Australia, considering our common interests and analysis in Indo-Pacific area. We participate especially in common exercises on a regular basis to strengthen our interoperability, such as La Pérouse exercise.
We have also significantly enhanced our planning coordination processes through a permanent staff and commander dialogue, to efficiently coordinate our efforts, like, for example, against nuclear proliferation in North Korea. In application of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, France notably supports the UNSC resolutions against illicit maritime activities, including ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean-flagged vessels, in conducting monitoring and surveillance activities in the East China Sea. Even if those operations are national, they are closely coordinated with partners, such as Australia.
France shares with Australia a special investment in the HADR in connection with PICs, with New Zealand, France, and Australia part of the FRANZ agreement to coordinate HADR approaches. Australia’s proximity with our overseas territory of New Caledonia moreover implies a close collaboration in many areas.
Are there plans for the French armed forces to collaborate with other European powers who also maintain an interest in the Indo-Pacific?
It is true that [many other] European countries have recently showed a growing interest in the Indo-Pacific area. And from a French perspective it is very good news. The recent publication of German and Dutch strategies underlines the strategic interest of the Indo-Pacific for Europe. German and British deployment projects are, from my point of view, an excellent opportunity to promote a multilateral approach in the area.
I want also to mention the very positive “E3 note verbale” released by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in September last year, which has been a strong signal to the international community to demonstrate that our analyses of the strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific are very close. Furthermore, common European projects are already a reality, especially on maritime safety with ESIWA (Enhance Security Cooperation in and with Asia) and CRIMARIO 2 (Critical Maritime Routes Indian Ocean).
Will we have in the near future a common European strategy? It is not my responsibility to decide it, but as one of the European Union (EU) founder states, France will strongly support any common initiative, especially about defense, in which France is particularly engaged.
The rise of Europe in Indo-Pacific still needs to be confirmed, but common interests and views are obvious. As the only EU country with a permanent military presence [in the region], France has real expertise to offer to any common approach and will be happy to do so.