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France in the Indopacific: a priority of growing importance

At the International Session on the Indo-Pacific, held in Paris this week, we take a look at the latest announcements concerning France's strategy for the region.
La France en Indopacifique : une priorité d’importance croissante

This week, the International Session for the Indo-Pacific (SIIP) 2023 is being held at the École Militaire, organised by the IHEDN and the Directorate for Security and Defence Cooperation (DCSD) of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. A total of 50 participants from 29 countries are attending round tables and conferences on the subject of this region, which has become crucial on the world political stage.

France's ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, Marc Abensour, summed up why at the SIIP: "This is the centre of gravity of the global economy. It is also an area crossed by hotbeds of tension: the Taiwan Strait, the Korean peninsula, the South China Sea...".

The diplomat added: "This is a priority area for French diplomacy. Because although this part of the chessboard is far from Europe, France has an important place there. Firstly, from a strictly geographical point of view, since several of its overseas departments or regions and overseas communities (DROM-COM) are located there: the islands of Mayotte and Réunion, the Eparses islands and the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia. To these can be added the uninhabited atoll of Clipperton, in the North Pacific, off the coast of Mexico. Together, they make up the largest part of the French Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the second largest in the world: 9 of the 11 million km².

Secondly, in human terms: these DROM-COMs have a total population of 1.65 million, to which must be added the French living in the countries in the zone, making a total of 2 million people. As far as the armed forces are concerned, 8,300 military personnel are deployed there as part of pre-positioned forces. Economically: with 7,000 subsidiaries of French companies based in the region, it could account for more than 50 % of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) by 2040, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Also in 2040, 75% of critical raw material reserves will be located there. Meanwhile, the region already accounts for more than a third of France's foreign trade outside the European Union.

FRANCE PROPOSES A THIRD WAY BETWEEN CHINA AND THE UNITED STATES

Since the establishment of a dedicated strategy in 2018, France has been increasingly asserting its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, as have other countries. In 2023, the heads of French foreign policy, Emmanuel Macron and Catherine Colonna, spoke out on this issue on several occasions.

On 28 August, at the Ambassadors' Conference at the Quai d'Orsay, the French President devoted a large part of his speech to the subject of the future of France. speech on "the challenges and priorities of France's foreign policy" to reiterate the terms of this policy, "a policy of demands and commitment with China": "France does not have a policy of hostility towards China. We want to improve the terms of trade in economic terms, and we consider China to be a major partner in technological and other terms. We know that the issues of peace and climate change, to name but two, need China to find a solution.

The President also noted that many states in the region "do not want to be locked into a kind of choice between the United States and China". "In this context, France must seek to be a power of trusting partnership", but without equidistance between the two superpowers, who have made the region the focus of their rivalry. The United States "is our ally, we share the same values and we don't have the same relationship with China". Paris, which sees itself as a "balancing power", is therefore proposing a "third way" to the states of the Indo-Pacific region.

An "absolutely key" point for the Head of State is the involvement of the overseas collectivities in French regional diplomacy. The future Pacific Military Academy based in Nouméa, New Caledonia, will be useful for defence and security diplomacy. In this area, the Pegasus 2023 mission has enabled cooperation with "several dozen countries in the region", declared the President of the Republic in Port-Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, on 27 July.

DEFEND "THE SOVEREIGNTY OF ALL STATES IN THE REGION".

In this other speech This year, the French Head of State focused on France's strategy in the Indo-Pacific, praising the partnerships forged with Vanuatu and other countries in the region, and announcing the forthcoming opening of an embassy in the Samoan Islands, the first in the Pacific.

He also denounced "the emergence of new imperialisms and a logic of power that threatens the sovereignty of many of the smallest and often most fragile states": "Our Indo-Pacific strategy consists first and foremost in defending, through these partnerships, the independence and sovereignty of all the states in the region that are prepared to work with us".

"This strategy is based first and foremost on our renewed diplomatic and military commitment", the President explained in detail. "Our military presence in French Polynesia and even more so in New Caledonia (...) is less than an hour's flight away, with 1,600 troops and air, sea and land capabilities. And through the military programming law [2024-2030, editor's note], we are going to invest €150 million in equipment, in the latest category equipment, and we are going to deploy 200 additional military personnel."

In the context of climate change, this military presence also represents a humanitarian asset: "The strength of this presence is its completeness, but it is also its responsiveness, as demonstrated by the latest generation maritime patrol vessel [which] goes twice as fast as its predecessor. And you saw this responsiveness when, thanks to our armed forces, the day after the cyclone in March, France was able to deploy humanitarian supplies here to help the people. Several tonnes of equipment were deployed. We were the first country to react using these capabilities.

STRENGTHENING BILATERAL PARTNERSHIPS AND MULTILATERAL COOPERATION

At the ambassadors' conference on 28 August, the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Catherine Colonna, spoke in its declaration the progress of various bilateral partnerships in the region: "Our diplomacy is asserting itself in the service of our sovereign interests, respecting the law, refusing dependence and alignment, but without ambiguity about our alliances, and therefore without equidistance. This is what we are doing with Japan, an exceptional partner for decades, and now with Indonesia. We are creating an unprecedented dynamic with Korea, which I visited in April, and strengthening our historic partnership with Singapore. We are also laying the foundations for a new relationship with Australia, not necessarily the one we might have envisaged for a time, but one that is bound to be friendly, since we have so much in common.

She also affirmed France's intention to strengthen multilateral cooperation, "by being more present in regional organisations, starting with ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Paris is a development partner, editor's note] and the Pacific Islands Forum, and build bridges between its partners in ad hoc formats, like the one I launched with my Indian and Emirati counterparts on the one hand, and the one I revived with my Indian and Australian counterparts on the other, which are particularly promising. "

While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the guest of honour at the parade on the Champs-Élysées on 14 July, France is also continuing to assert itself in this sub-region of the Indo-Pacific. As the only European country to be a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), it is once again playing the multilateral card in the face of rising imperialism. The same goes for defence cooperation with the Shangri-La Dialogue: the French Minister for the Armed Forces (or Defence) has been taking part since 2012, France being the only European country to do so.

 "Our assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific is based on our overseas territories as much as it serves them, because we fully embrace the singularity of being both a European nation and a nation of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific", summed up the head of the Quai d'Orsay on 28 August.