In July 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron visited French Polynesia for the first time in his mandate. Macron had to answer many domestic political questions about the health crisis linked to COVID-19, the underestimated effects of the consequences of nuclear tests, the inscription of the Marquesas Islands on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and the fight against the effects of climate change.
The presidential visit also had an international dimension, however. In a context of China’s growing influence in the Pacific region, Macron clarified the multimodal policy that France is implementing in the Indo-Pacific region.
The International Context
France officially adopted an Indo-Pacific strategy in May 2018. This concept has been developed since the beginning of the 21st century by several governments, notably the United States, Australia, and Japan. Geographically, the Indo-Pacific region is a maritime and terrestrial space encompassing the Indian and Pacific Oceans, extending to all neighboring countries. But the Indo-Pacific is above all a strategic construction that aims to contain the rise of China. The international promotion of the concept follows the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), another transnational project supported by China since 2013. All countries that have embraced Indo-Pacific semantics share the same ambition to contain China’s influence in the region.
France has developed its own conception of the Indo-Pacific strategy. It has diplomatic, cultural, economic, and military levers of influence in the region. However, it is mainly the exercise of national sovereignty in the French Indo-Pacific collectivities (FIPC) – including Reunion Island, Mayotte, French Southern and Arctic Lands, Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia and French Polynesia – that legitimizes France’s presence in this vast region and makes up the specificity of the French doctrine.
In Papeete, Macron underlined the preeminent role of French Polynesia in this strategy: “We have a page of ambitions for the future to write here in the Pacific, with an Indo-Pacific strategy in which I believe and in which French Polynesia has an essential role to play.”
The Regional Level
The associated or self-governing states and territories of the South Pacific represent only 0.1 percent of the world’s population. However, they account for 6.7 percent of the votes at the United Nations and 40 percent of the international maritime space – enough to arouse all kinds of geopolitical appetite. Thus, many Asian powers have developed their own framework for international relations with the Pacific Island countries.
China launched the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum (CPEDC) in 2006. In 1997, Japan established the Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM), a triennial meeting between Japanese diplomats and representatives of Pacific Island countries. India implemented the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in 2014. South Korea has been hosting the Korea-Pacific Islands Foreign Ministers Meeting (KPIFMM) since 2011. Taiwan, despite its gradual loss of influence in the Pacific, launched the Pacific Islands Dialogue (PID) in October 2019. Singapore has organized occasional (2012 and 2017) ministerial study visits attended by 14 Pacific Island foreign ministers. Thailand takes part in the Thailand-Pacific Island Countries Forum (TPIF), which saw its fourth edition in 2017.
Some countries have also developed diplomatic strategies to define their policy vis-à-vis the South Pacific region: the “Pacific Pledge” in the United States, “Pacific Shift” in Canada, “Pacific Uplift” in the United Kingdom, “Pacific Step-up” in Australia, “Pacific Reset” in New Zealand, “Pacific Elevation” in Indonesia, and “Pacific Bond” in Japan.
Since 2002, France has also established its own regional forum. On July 19, 2021, five days before the presidential trip to Polynesia, the fifth France-Oceania summit took place. This edition brought together by videoconference the president of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), 15 heads or representatives of states and autonomous territories of the South Pacific region, as well as representatives of French territories in the Pacific: Louis Mapou, president of the Government of New Caledonia; Edouard Fritch, president of French Polynesia; and Nivaleta Iloai, president of the Territorial Assembly of Wallis and Futuna.
The French armed forces also actively participate in regional security within the framework of active and operational collaborations, including the South Pacific Defense Ministers’ Meeting. France is also part of the FRANZ tripartite agreement bringing together France, Australia and New Zealand, which focuses on disaster relief in the region. Beyond that, France recently led a naval exercise involving the Quad member states (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States).
France, a Legitimate Player in the Region?
France has the second largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world with almost 11 million square kilometers. That is largely thanks to French Polynesia and its 4.5 million sq km EEZ, a maritime area equivalent to the land surface of the European Union. French Polynesia alone makes up almost 45 percent of the French EEZ.
In July 2021, for the first time in the history of France, the president of the French Republic visited the northernmost archipelago of Polynesia, the Marquesas, nearly 1,500 km from the island of Tahiti. Macron then visited the island of Manihi in the Tuamotu Archipelago. The visit to these two remote archipelagos by a French president underlines France’s interest vis-à-vis the geopolitical potential of French Polynesia. The maritime immensity of the territory represents a geostrategic asset and great development opportunities with implications for air connectivity, submarine cables, space policy, polymetallic nodules, etc. Exercising sovereignty over such a large maritime zone also entails heavy duties and responsibilities in the face of the wishes of certain international actors, notably China.
Beijing’s various strategies to extend its influence on the South Pacific are well documented: economic influence, instrumentalization of the diaspora, development aid, financing of infrastructures, participation in and organization of multilateral dialogues, and bilateral political cooperation. Regarding French territories and specifically French Polynesia, China does not officially contest French sovereignty in the region. In doing so, Beijing preserves its bilateral relationship with an important European partner. However, China refuses to recognize France as a legitimate actor in the Asian regional environment. This skepticism was expressed by a Chinese officer in 2013 during the Shangri-La Dialogue: “for us, France is in Europe.”
The French Indo-Pacific strategy is perceived in Beijing as an “anti-China” stratagem piloted by the United States. Macron’s inaugural speech on the Indo-Pacific, delivered in Australia in May 2018, was mocked by Chinese national media. More alarmingly, in April 2019, a French Navy ship, the Vendémiaire, was approached by Chinese navy ships ordering it to leave the Taiwan Strait. This incident is indicative of a France considered by the Chinese government as a proxy of the United States, particularly in its adoption of the Indo-Pacific lexicon.
In conclusion, France has significative assets in the Indo-Pacific region, mainly the exercise of national sovereignty in the French Indo-Pacific territories. The promotion of an Indo-Pacific strategy by the French state intends to legitimize and give credibility to France’s status as an Indo-Pacific power. The French strategy is intended to be inclusive and not explicitly directed against a country, but is interpreted in Beijing as an anti-Chinese policy. In the future, the FIPCs will become a major component of French international relations and French Polynesia an important element of China-France relations.