France and the United States take different positions on the state of affairs in the Indo Pacific . While both countries oppose China’s hegemonic designs, France is uncomfortable with the widening gulf between the United States and China.

France’s approach to the Indo-Pacific aims to protect the country’s international position and its specific interests—notably, in the overseas territories that anchor and give credibility to the French strategy. But the strategy’s implementation, a delicate exercise, will continually require French decisionmakers to have a clear vision of these interests and to avoid any rhetoric or dangerous confrontation with China while maintaining a central—but not exclusive—place for the United States in its traditional system of alliances.

For France, the Indo-Pacific space extends from the shores of East Africa and southern Africa to the coasts of North, Central, and South America; and for France’s Ministry of the Armed Forces, it is “a security continuum which extends from Djibouti to French Polynesia.” Alternatively, for the United States, it stops at India’s shores.

The United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy goes beyond highlighting Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific; it paints this expansionism as a leading threat to U.S. interests. China is seen as a revisionist power that uses its “military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage.”

Early on France called for building partnerships between allies to restore a relative “level playing field” in the competition with Beijing and reaffirmed the strength of France’s historical, political, and strategic ties with Washington. It is in this spirit that Macron positioned France as a “balancing power” Unsurprisingly, France’s goals for the Indo-Pacific largely overlap with those of its partners and allies. The goals include maintaining freedom of navigation on the sea and in the air, which France intends to uphold through dialogue and discussion and, if necessary, through its armed forces, whether alone or in partnership. They also include safety and security, particularly in regards to terrorism, nuclear proliferation, trafficking of all kinds, and attacks on sovereignty.

However, the insistence on an additional objective—protecting the environment—partially distinguishes the French approach from those of its partners. France does not just emphasize the importance of issues like climate change and biodiversity out of moral conviction and the desire to capitalize on the success of the Paris Agreement, but also out of strategic interest: threats to environmental security affect all other dimensions of security by redrawing maps, displacing populations, creating new hotbeds of tension, and affecting critical infrastructure. Moreover, while China’s growing military capabilities may pose a threat to French interests in the long term, issues like Beijing’s designs to appropriate resources like fisheries pose an even more immediate danger.

France is not entirely alone in having integrated the environmental dimension into its Indo-Pacific strategy. For example, through the Pacific Environmental Security Forum, the United States signals the importance of the issue for the Pacific Islands and, despite the administration’s rhetoric, understands the strategic and political consequences of climate change. France is nevertheless the only state to have raised the environmental dimension to such a level of priority.

Finally, multilateralism, whether through tri- or multilateral partnerships or international forums, is at the very heart of France’s understanding of the Indo-Pacific concept. It is both an objective—the need to preserve the existing international order of which multilateralism is the foundation—and a means to achieve the objective. For France, multilateralism is a way to ease growing polarization in the region and to remedy power asymmetries between big and small powers—allowing the latter to reclaim their autonomous decision making.

France considers itself an Indo-Pacific resident power. In addition to sharing borders with five independent states in the Indian Ocean and twelve in the Pacific Ocean, the country administers overseas territories and has large numbers of French citizens living in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, its understanding of the region’s geographic scope is primarily rooted in these territories, which include New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and Clipperton Island—as well as Reunion Island, Mayotte, and the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. For France, they collectively make up the second most important exclusive economic zone in the world.

In fact, through its overseas holdings, France sees itself as an island state in the Indo-Pacific. This lends credibility to its international commitments in the region: the state’s duty to protect its citizens and the sovereignty of its territories wherever they may be means that the overseas territories are to some extent the guarantors of the legitimacy of the French government.

Therefore, France’s overseas territories put the Indo-Pacific in the center of the country’s national strategic thinking and give France a prominent voice in the great debate over the region. Because the Indo-Pacific is now a potential confrontation zone, France’s substantial capacity to influence the strategic, political, and economic evolution of the region makes its presence there desirable in the eyes of many partner states. The evolution of India’s and Australia’s positions on French authority in the Indian and Pacific Oceans over the past ten years is striking in this regard; France’s presence is now accepted rather than just tolerated, and each power views the state as a major strategic partner.

These partnerships remain fragile, however, most notably because France’s overseas territories could seek to separate themselves from the metropolis. French sovereignty is already being contested in New Caledonia and to a lesser extent in French Polynesia. Meanwhile, Comoros lays claim to Mayotte, with the support of South Africa, China, and Russia; and Mauritius and Madagascar have contested French sovereignty over, respectively, Tromelin Island and the Scattered Islands (both part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands). The loss of all or part of these territories would inevitably lead to a loss of France’s influence in the eyes of its allies and partners.

France’s membership in international organizations focused on the region is not without difficulties. France is a party to various Pacific fora and is a founding member of the Indian Ocean Commission, an intergovernmental agency that brings together five Indian Ocean island states. But, although a candidate, it is still not a member of the broad Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). An intergovernmental organization created in 1997 on the initiative of South Africa and India, the IORA brings together twenty-two member states, representative of all the Indian Ocean’s shores, as well as nine dialogue partners.

France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is not the result of mere political opportunism. It reflects a realization of the potential dangers that China’s rise and the Sino-American rivalry pose to France’s interests, influence, and status—as well as a desire to prevent possible marginalization given the supposed shift in gravity toward Asia. The strategy will only be successful, however, if France’s overseas territories redefine their relations with the metropolis to become vectors of political, diplomatic, military, economic, and cultural influence.

Finally, France cannot act alone—it will need to gain the support of other European states, who may be reluctant partners unless France can both reassure them of its benign intentions and remind them of the need to protect their own interests in the region. It will also need to help redefine Europe’s relations with the United States. Walking along a narrow path, Europe must share more of the burden in security matters but never fall into the trap of a mechanical alignment with Washington.

Defense Dialogues in which France is involved:

  1. SPDMM- South Pacific Defense Ministers' Meeting
  2. Shangri-La Dialogue
  3. Raisina Dialogue
  4. Tokyo Defense Forum
  5. Indian Ocean Conference
  6. Putrajaya Forum
  7. SDD- Seoul Defense Dialogue
  8. Ulaanbaatar Dialogue
  9. APICE- Asia Pacific Intelligence Chiefs Conference
  10. CHODS- Chiefs of Defense Seminar
  11. IONS- Indian Ocean Naval Symposium
  12. PCGF- Pacific Coast Guard Forum
  13. Pacific QUAD- Quadrilateral DEfense Coordination Group
  14. WPNS- Western Pacific Naval Symposium
  15. South West Paciic Heads of Maritime Forces Meeting
  16. PESF Pacific Environmental Security Forum


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