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France’s Ambitious Indo-Pacific Goals for Its EU Presidency

February 08, 2022
9 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
Holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first half of this year gives France the opportunity to determine the EU agenda and influence its longer-term policies.

It has set ambitious goals for its EU presidency regarding the Indo-Pacific. Nonetheless, the EU is not focused and united enough to deliver much on this front.

In November 2021, when visiting Indonesia, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared that the Indo-Pacific would be “a priority for France’s EU presidency.” It is clear that there are other priorities for President Emmanuel Macron, who will seek a second term in April’s presidential election. Demonstrating that the EU can protect its citizens and, as a result, that it “adds value” to the life of the French people is probably more important. In addition, Russia and Ukraine loom large on this short six-month period.

Yet, in the ambitious program with over 60 priorities issued by Paris in December 2021 for its presidency of the Council of the EU, the Indo-Pacific and China in particular are far from absent. The sections related to the region highlight not only France’s own vision for the EU but also its efforts to reach out to—and compromise with—other member states as it wants to turn its own Indo-Pacific strategy into a steady feature of the EU’s common foreign and security policy. The question is whether this effort will strengthen the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy as well as its ability to act.

Being the first member state to have articulated an Indo-Pacific strategy, France is very much aware of its influence on the EU’s. Trying to capitalize on the territories that it administers and the armed forces that it still deploys in this vast region as well as to stimulate its weapon sales there, Macron presented the strategy in Sydney in 2018. Not long after, the armed forces and foreign ministries issued long documents detailing it. Later, the Netherlands and Germany made public their own Indo-Pacific strategies. In September 2021, the EU followed suit.

The EU’s strategy was published the day after the signing of the security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) that provoked a diplomatic crisis between Paris, Washington, and Canberra, and forced France to adjust its Indo-Pacific strategy. Since then, while relations with Australia have remained shaky, France has been keen to demonstrate that its Indo-Pacific strategy has not changed, forging closer partnerships with India, Indonesia, Japan, and other countries of the Indo-Pacific as well as resuming its security cooperation with the United States in the region.

The objective and challenge of the French presidency of the Council of the EU is to bring the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy closer to its own strategy.

There are many common features but also noticeable differences between the Indo-Pacific strategies of France and the EU. While claiming to be comprehensive and inclusive, France’s strategy is more oriented toward hard security, and it aims at better coordinating with partners in the region and the United States. The EU’s strategy emphasizes values, connectivity, soft security issues such as sustainable development and environmental protection, and its special partnership with Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The objective and challenge of the French presidency of the Council of the EU therefore is to bring the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy closer to its own strategy.

Common Commitments

On the positive side, there is in Paris a real willingness to reach out to other member states to make the EU stronger and more credible vis-à-vis its main partners in the Indo-Pacific. France has declared being “fully committed to implementing the EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.”

To illustrate this commitment, on February 22, it will organize in Paris, together with the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, an Indo-Pacific Forum. In addition to all the member states, the foreign ministers from 30 Indo-Pacific countries have been invited, including those from India, Japan, and South Korea. This will be the main initiative of the French presidency related to the region.

The forum is planned to “address specific challenges related to security and defense, and digital and connectivity issues in the context of the Global Gateway initiative to develop infrastructure worldwide, as well as global challenges such as global health, climate change, biodiversity and the protection of the oceans.” Three roundtables will be organized to discuss these issues.

Launched in December 2021 and mobilizing up to €300 billion in investment until 2027, the EU’s Global Gateway initiative aims not only “to underpin a global recovery, taking into account our partners needs and EU’s [sic] own interests” but also to balance China’s growing influence in the region and beyond.

China and the United States have been excluded from the forum, highlighting the push by France and the EU for greater strategic autonomy. Yet, in an attempt to build consensus among member states, in its presidency program, France has refrained from promoting too actively the EU’s “strategic autonomy,” preferring instead to assert its “sovereignty”, which is mentioned 13 times. Although used five times, “strategic autonomy” refers in the document to the EU’s ability to act independently only in terms of trade, technology, and innovation.

Moreover, worried about the criticism of Macron’s neo-Gaullist inclinations, especially regarding Russia, France’s program states that “it will support a deeper dialogue with the United States with regard to foreign policy, in particular concerning China and the Indo-Pacific region.” On this particular issue, Paris’s goal is to make sure that, in the post-AUKUS context, the United States recognizes the important role that the EU can play in this part of the world. And on China specifically, France has promised to “continue to implement the approach chosen [by the EU] with regard to EU-China relations”.

This later commitment will not be too hard to meet since France, and the EU have much in common with regard to China. They have adopted more assertive language, considering it since 2019 as a “systemic rival” and criticizing more openly Beijing’s infringements of human rights in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and elsewhere as well as its threat to security and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. While France and the EU continue to push for a ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment approved in principle by the EU and China in December 2020, they agree that the counter sanctions imposed by Beijing on some members of the European Parliament have made ratification impossible in the foreseeable future.

Paris has not changed its position that the Indo-Pacific remains outside of NATO’s action perimeter.

Finally, to reassure other EU capitals and Washington, in its presidency program, France reasserted that “a stronger and more operational European defense” is “complementary to NATO” and that “it will support the strengthening of EU-NATO cooperation in areas of mutual interest”. Yet, Paris has not changed its position that the Indo-Pacific remains outside of NATO’s action perimeter. In this region, it prefers to operate through a bilateral EU-US format, stating that the French presidency “will back the holding of the first EU-US defense and security dialogue and will work to strengthen partnerships, in particular in Africa and the Indo-Pacific.”

Prospects for Influence

Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how much can France influence and strengthen the EU’s capacity to act in the Indo-Pacific.

First, the Indo-Pacific Forum can highlight divergences among EU member states. Those more friendly toward China, such as Hungary or Poland, may object to working too closely with the United States and its allies in the region, such as Japan. Therefore, the forum is not certain to help Indo-Pacific countries adopt a common position regarding the role that they want the EU to play in their region.

Second, like the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, France’s EU presidency program states that the “EU’s access to contested strategic areas will […] be a priority.” Apart from France, few member states—Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands—have the capacity and shown the willingness to deploy naval ships in the Indo-Pacific. The EU’s lack of security means compels it to continue to rely on economic, financial, and soft security means to enhance its influence in the region.

Third, the European countries that have deployed naval assets in the region have generally been very cautious. For example, in the South China Sea, they have always refrained from entering the 12 nautical mile limit around the artificial islands controlled by China, despite their support for 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that found that than none of the land features in this body of water warrant island status.

The European countries that have deployed naval assets in the region have generally been very cautious.

In December 2021, in a first, and after having consulted its French counterpart, the German navy sent the frigate Bayern to the South China Sea, which did not sail through the Taiwan Strait so as not to offend China. Some German parliamentarians have called for abandoning this prudence, but it remains to be seen whether the government will follow this advice.

Fourth, in its EU presidency program, France has stated its willingness to “provide special support for the action to be taken in the maritime fields through the expanded application, in early 2022, of the Coordinated Maritime Presence [CMP] in a new area of the Indo-Pacific.” Since 2013, the French navy deploys every year its Jeanne d’Arc mission, a five-month qualifying mission for student officers to the region. In September 2021, the EU decided to enhance its member states’ naval deployments in the Indo-Pacific, taking stock of the experience it acquired in the Gulf of Guinea.

To push this idea forward, France proposed in late January to first conduct the CMP in the northwestern Indian Ocean. And the Paris forum on February 22 may better define the CMP missions, probably extending them to the South China Sea. But these missions face obvious practical limits in view of the number of European navies that can be involved in them. Moreover, behind France’s offer of support there may be an attempt to convince the EU to contribute more actively to securing its overseas territories and large maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific, particularly New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the South Pacific. As in Africa, Paris may be trying to “Europeanize” its security objectives and challenges.

Despite the commitments in its EU presidency program, Paris’s priority remains to use the EU to empower its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Finally, there is a tension between France’s ambition to promote the EU’s sovereignty and strategic autonomy in the Indo-Pacific and the need to closely cooperate with the United States in the region. Despite the commitments in its EU presidency program, Paris’s priority remains to use the EU to empower its Indo-Pacific strategy. It has continued to develop this strategy, based on security partnership and defense cooperation with key partners in the region, particularly India, Indonesia, and Japan.

In December 2021, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly visited New Delhi and France and India held their third annual defense dialogue. The following month, Paris organized virtual 2 + 2 talks between foreign and defense ministers with Japan, sharing with its counterparts its “serious concerns” on the state of affairs in the East and South China seas, and underscoring the importance of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

All in all, France’s presidency of the Council of the EU will probably contribute to strengthening and fleshing out the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Nevertheless, the EU lacks the unity, willingness, and military means to deliver more effective security policies and actions in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, France and the EU are likely to be seized with more pressing issues, such as the coming presidential election in France and the Russia-Ukraine crisis, that prevent it from delivering as much as promised on the Indo-Pacific front.

Asia Program

GMF’s Asia Program advances US and European coordination and cooperation on the Indo-Pacific, a region which promises to be the center of gravity in global geopolitics for decades to come.