Moving On After AUKUS: Working with France in the Indo-Pacific

“We have reason to question the strength of the alliance with the US. In a true alliance, you talk to each other, you respect each other. That was not the case here.” With these words, then French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian justified France’s decision to recall its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra for consultations following the conclusion of the “AUKUS” agreement between Australia and the United Kingdom and the United States. The timing of the announcement had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing the EU’s just-released Indo-Pacific strategy, which was the result of many months of continuous lobbying by France. Furthermore, the mysterious manner in which the deal was negotiated confirmed the worst fears of some in Paris about Washington and London, and how France’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific might materialize in the context of such a blatant deception from Canberra.

While President Macron was certainly angered by the deal, he was less embarrassed than Le Drian, who had worked on France’s submarine deal with Australia since he was defense secretary under President Hollande. His replacement as foreign minister by Catherine Colonna, a career diplomat and former French ambassador to London, is a clear gesture that Macron is ready to move forward pragmatically and turn the tide. Finally, the Indo-Pacific continues to rank high among Macron’s foreign policy priorities, and that now includes finding a way to work with AUKUS members. For example, in May French and Australian officials pledged to rebuild bilateral ties as Canberra announced it would compensate the French Naval Group for lost revenue from the submarine deal. And France plans to deploy an aircraft carrier in the region by 2025 to conduct operations with the US Navy.

More than submarines

The angry reaction from Paris took Washington by surprise, and indeed many analysts called the removal of the French ambassador to Washington – the first time this has happened – a dramatic and unnecessary step. Public discussion of AUKUS has focused primarily on France’s loss of a major submarine contract, but AUKUS is about much more than submarines and the deployment of nuclear technology. It is the basis of a regional security treaty that excludes France, which had attempted to implement its Indo-Pacific strategy through bilateral ties with Australia and India. Beyond submarines, AUKUS includes collaboration on new technologies and expanded information sharing. These aspects – rather than nuclear cooperation – underscore in many ways why the French see AUKUS as a missed opportunity for closer cooperation. And that’s not just because France sees itself as a European pioneer in technologies such as quantum computing and a future pioneer in AI.

Paris has significant holdings in the Indo-Pacific, home to over 1.5 million French people. 93 percent of France’s exclusive economic zone is in the Indo-Pacific, and 1.65 million French people live in the French Overseas Territories. In addition, France has deployed around 8,000 military personnel to the region and more than 7,000 French companies have operations in the region.

It is therefore not surprising that France has also been the most active country within Europe in pushing for greater European involvement in the Indo-Pacific. Within the framework of the European Union, Paris has campaigned intensively for a coordinated approach in the region in Brussels. This has led to the adoption of the bloc’s strategy in the region, a change that received little attention as it was overshadowed by the AUKUS announcement. EU policy in the Indo-Pacific should also be one of the priorities of the French EU Council Presidency in the first half of 2022.

Future cooperation

The interests – but not necessarily preferred approaches – of AUKUS members and France largely align in the Indo-Pacific, underscoring the need for economic cooperation, security and strategic competition, as well as multilateralism and a rules-based order. Cooperation with France in the Indo-Pacific is an indispensable step for the AUKUS countries to achieve their goals, as France has demonstrated its commitment to the region. Undoubtedly, France’s perception of itself as a “balancing power” — the idea that it can work with partners and yet grapple with those partners’ opponents — frustrates Washington. Likewise, AUKUS has damaged French confidence in the United States and particularly Australia, with which France has downgraded its relationship status. Although France recently signaled a possible thaw in its frosty relations with Australia, hurdles will remain as French officials ponder how to conduct French policy in Asia without their formerly closest – and like-minded – Indo-Pacific partner can implement .

Almost a year after the AUKUS debacle and almost six months after the French presidential election, it is now time for the AUKUS countries to move on. AUKUS partners should primarily recognize the French role in the region through concrete offers of cooperation – three steps appear to be particularly useful.

Emerging Technologies

There is an opportunity to include France in the non-nuclear aspects of AUKUS. Finally, France is considered one of the leading countries in the research of new technologies, especially quantum computers. Although French researchers are already contributing to international technology efforts, inclusion in AUKUS could allow French researchers to share information specifically identified as important technology gaps among AUKUS participants. Similarly, in space cooperation – another identified AUKUS cooperation area – France could bring the power of the European Union’s own space agency to share burdens with AUKUS participants to compete with China’s growing space capabilities. In fact, France has been lobbiing EU member states for more interest in space as a strategic area: the issue was a priority of France’s presidency of the European Union, and the drive to develop an EU space strategy was included in the bloc’s Strategic Compass.

Think of Trans-European-Pacific partnerships as a strength

Washington, London and Canberra should consider expanding the pact, or at least parts of it, with partners in the Indo-Pacific – notably France and Japan – and acknowledging the growing ties between Europe and Asia in diplomatic, military, technological and economic areas. The EU’s recent engagement with Japan underscores that the European Union is viewed by key Asian partners as an increasingly serious partner in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, earlier this year, Japan’s foreign minister specifically praised France’s leadership in strengthening EU engagement in the region. The inclusion of France and Japan in aspects of AUKUS would contribute to better access to a more diverse set of resources and know-how in one of the leading economic and technological centers in Europe and Asia. And perhaps just as important for managing the perception, their inclusion in the Pact could give it greater credibility as a grouping of like-minded democratic countries, which could consist not only of the Anglo-speaking world but also of the Asian and broader European community.

“Five eyes” plus?

The AUKUS pact was made possible, among other things, by the fact that the three countries involved already have deep secret service relationships through the “Five Eyes” secret service alliance. Even if France were involved in some of the non-nuclear aspects of AUKUS, its position outside of this particular intelligence alliance would likely limit its involvement. While the formal expansion of Five Eyes for Washington, Canberra and London is likely a non-starter, AUKUS could become an opportunity for more robust intelligence sharing with France on a smaller scale and scale – and certainly be seen as a confidence-building measure with the French.

Conclusion

With ties thawing following the creation of AUKUS, now is an opportune moment to explore ways in which France could join the non-nuclear aspects of the framework. With France’s presence in the Indo-Pacific – more than any other European power – the United States could leverage both France’s experience and capabilities to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region, while also seeking ways to leverage European technological and economic capabilities and Asian countries enhance each other’s security and resilience. As a leading technological power in Europe, France could add value to the new technology aspects of AUKUS, particularly in the areas of quantum, space and cyber. While there are some practical elements that AUKUS members would need to overcome – language barriers and sharing information among themselves – these are not insurmountable. Above all, there are benefits to including France – the driving force behind the European Union’s growing reach into Asia – in aspects of AUKUS, with the strongest benefit being a trans-European-Pacific effort to offset China’s malign regional influence, with implications for America, Europe , and Asian partners alike.

Gesine Weber is a research analyst in the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and received his doctorate in the USA. Candidate in the Department of Defense Studies, King’s College London. Her research focuses on European security and defense cooperation, including post-Brexit EU-UK relations and E3 (France, Germany, UK) cooperation, and the role of the EU in geopolitics.

Edgar Tam is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the United States’ German Marshall Fund and US Defense Liaison Officer in the United Kingdom. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the US government.

Image: Presidence de la Republique

https://warontherocks.com/2022/08/moving-on-after-aukus-working-with-france-in-the-indo-pacific/ Moving On After AUKUS: Working with France in the Indo-Pacific

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