Back in September 2021, the sudden announcement of AUKUS – a defense partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – came as a shock to Paris. It not only meant the brutal termination of the submarine deal France had signed with Australia in 2016, but also brought a deep crisis of confidence in France’s relations with key partners, shedding light on the divergence of approaches regarding the Chinese challenge. Finally, it called into question France’s strategic positioning in the Indo-Pacific.
One year later, however, AUKUS has not marked a major turning point for France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. After the initial shock, the bilateral relationships with Washington, Canberra, and even London slowly recovered.
Rather than prompting a radical change in Paris’ Indo-Pacific approach, AUKUS highlighted a fault line between the strategic level/political rhetoric and the defense operational level in the French engagement in this region. The defense deal was also a reminder of the necessity of working together to tackle the multiple challenges and the growing risks of naval combat and high-intensity conflict in this region.
Strategic Partnerships With the U.S., Australia, and the U.K.: Bouncing Back
France’s political relations with the United States recovered quite quickly, thanks to proactive efforts from the Biden administration. The discussion between Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden on October 29, 2021, in Rome, when the U.S. committed to “systematic and in-depth consultation and coordination” and welcomed the French and EU strategies in the Indo-Pacific, allowed the bilateral relationship to get back on track. Moreover, the allies signed the Strategic Interoperability Framework in December 2021, deepening their capacities to fight together at sea. Since then, French officials have repeatedly praised the unprecedented level of consultation by their U.S. counterparts.
In the Indo-Pacific, France-U.S. relations run along the same lines as before: a strong partnership, tempered by French caution about Washington’s anti-China tone. Paris has therefore kept its distance from initiatives such as the Quad or Partners in the Blue Pacific, favoring ad hoc cooperation rather than a full association.
The diplomatic reset in Australia-France relations followed the 555 million euros of financial compensation granted to France’s Naval Group, the jilted party in Australia’s submarine saga. The visit of new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Paris on July 1 continued the positive momentum. The joint statement provided the political impulse to set up a new, ambitious roadmap reviving the strategic partnership, in which defense and security cooperation will be central. This was highlighted by the visit at the beginning of September of Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles to the naval base of Brest in Brittany, which hosts France’s nuclear submarines.
However, operational cooperation never ceased during this last year, as France’s and Australia’s interests are inseparable in the South Pacific. Canberra (along with Wellington) activated the FRANZ mechanism to coordinate with the French Forces and provide an emergency humanitarian assistance to Tonga after a violent volcanic eruption hit the archipelago in January 2022. Australia also actively participated in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises organized by France, such as MARARA in May 2022 and the first coast guard seminar organized by France in October 2021. Both countries also took part in the coordinated maritime patrols in support of the Pacific islands within the framework of the Pacific Quad.
Although Paris and London remain strong allies, France’s relationship with the U.K. is used to ups and downs at the political level, and elements of competition remain in the Indo-Pacific. Again, at the operational level, military activities never really ceased: as an example, U.K. joined the French-organized Polaris 21, one of the biggest international naval exercises, in the winter of 2021.
This said, apart from a logistical stopover in Polynesia a few months ago, the low level of interaction of the two U.K. patrol boats (HMS Spey and Tamar) deployed in the Indo-Pacific with French warships is a concern. Maritime coordination must henceforth gain momentum by leaving everyone’s egos aside. The British-French rivalry continues in multiple dimensions – regional influence, industrial and defense partnerships, and maritime security leadership – but the U.K. and France should now find a way to work together in this region, as the stakes are high and their respective capacities insufficient considering the challenges. The departure of Boris Johnson as prime minister and a new administration in the U.K. could facilitate such a development.
One year after AUKUS was announced, the objective for France is to rebuild a strategic dynamic at the Indo-Pacific level with all the stakeholders, especially Australia. Paris and Canberra are neighbors in the Pacific and share a long history of cooperation, which it is now absolutely essential to restructure given the gradual strategic shift in the Pacific islands.
Is France’s Ambition To Be a “Balancing Power” Still Realistic?
AUKUS highlighted the discrepancy between France’s strategic ambition in the Indo-Pacific – promoting “a third way” and acting to be a “balancing power” – and the limited military assets that France can mobilize to support its ambition.
Despite multiple naval and aerial dispatches, demonstrating its resolve and capacity to deploy quickly in the region in a time of emergency, the tyranny of distance is still limiting what Paris can do should a conflict arise. The modest pre-positioned forces in La Réunion, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia are already overstretched by multiple missions, such as law enforcement and capacity building activities, defense diplomacy, and operational cooperation. For example, the two maritime surveillance aircraft and four warships based in French Polynesia are in charge of patrolling an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) the size of all of Europe.
The renewed strengthening of naval and air capacity in the Indo-Pacific will beef up France’s presence in the coming years but will not be enough to meet the growing challenges facing the South Pacific, such as the foreseeable consequences of climate change and the increase of illegal fishing activities after the depletion of fishery resources in the South China Sea.
While France can play a useful complementary role to the U.S. in terms of digital connectivity, seabed and environmental protection, maritime security and governance of the commons, including as part of the European strategy in the region, Paris will have difficulty living up to its military ambitions. In the U.S. conception, France will remain a secondary player in the area, whose cooperation will certainly be welcome, but from whom little will be expected.
To demonstrate a serious and consistent commitment, the deployment of additional armed forces, human resources, and naval and air capabilities is a prerequisite and could be supplemented by one or more additional foothold in Asia to provide sustainable logistics. The French role of a “balancing power” makes sense in times of relative peace and prosperity but would be difficult to maintain in the event of a high-intensity conflict in the region. If Paris sees, for example, the invasion of Taiwan as a red line, then it would be necessary to work on a contingency scenario as soon as possible to clarify the role that French forces would play, in coalition with allies and partners.
Such an approach would imply a fundamental review of the French approach in this region in terms of operational activities, logistical support, and governance. The war in Ukraine underscored the value of formal alliances, strongholds, intelligence, and strategic foresight. Anticipation should absolutely prevail to avoid a regrettable unpreparedness in the Indo-Pacific.
The worsening of the China-U.S. rivalry and the growing concerns about a looming crisis in the Taiwan Strait are factors that weigh much more heavily than AUKUS on France’s positioning in the Indo-Pacific. It now requires a political clarification regarding Paris’ role in the event of a high intensity conflict in this region.