France as a ‘balancing power’ or “puissance d’équilibre,” a concept as vague in English as it is in French.

French officials insist that Paris rejects the notion of “confrontation” between great powers in the region. The goal of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is not to counter China but to promote partnerships focused on common interests rather than common threats. Such French rhetoric plays as a barely veiled critique of the American posture, perceived in Paris (as well as in some Asian capitals) as too polarizing.

In the search for local partnerships to shore up its Indo-Pacific strategy, France must confront two fundamental questions. The first relates to its ability to shape the local environment. Asian policy circles remain skeptical about the military and economic might a country like France can deploy to the Indo-Pacific when compared to great powers like Washington and Beijing. Paris is well aware of the need to address this credibility gap and announced in the past year new naval deployments to increase its presence in Asian waters. French military expenditures are also expected to rise, but those are driven less by Asia’s security challenges than by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. No one in Paris is under the illusion that France could match American and Chinese capacities. Instead, the goal is to maintain sufficient resources to lead Asian middle powers to consider the French proposal as a true alternative. Defining this level of sufficiency remains unclear, however.

This brings about the second issue facing Paris, which relates to the need to clarify its regional posture. Although French diplomats boast the distinctive nature of the country’s Indo-Pacific strategy vis-à-vis the United States, catchphrases such as “Paris’ third way,” “balancing power,” or France as “a power of initiatives “ are not compelling. They may look like shallow statements hiding an absence of concrete objectives or, worse, could be dismissed as lofty rhetoric disguising the true priority of Paris—i.e., weapons sales.

France’s Indo-Pacific policy is not as different from America’s as its rhetoric suggests. France remains a NATO ally of Washington and has similarly highlighted China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its predatory investments in Asia and Africa. Furthermore, when working with an American audience, France tends to tone down the talk of its “third way,” promoting its Indo-Pacific strategy as complementary to Washington’s. It is a difficult enterprise for France to position itself as an alternative foreign policy player to the United States while also persuading Washington that this approach benefits both countries.

Ultimately, the credibility of France’s capabilities and intentions is an interrelated issue, and the key to solving it may lie in its ability to its Indo-Pacific strategy. Under this approach, the EU would provide resources that France cannot offer on its own, possibly supporting the ability of Europe to act as a true alternative to U.S.-China competition. For French diplomats, this means they must keep the EU engaged in Asia at a time it is focused on the war in Ukraine. In other words, the future of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy may be played out in Brussels just as much as in Asian capitals.

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