Is France India’s naval ally in the Pacific?
About a year ago, I attended a conference in Delhi; the topic was the Indo-Pacific, a fascinating topic, though at first I wondered, what is this “Indo-Pacific”? The dictionary tells us that the Indo-Pacific is “a biogeographic region of Earth’s seas…The term is especially useful in marine biology and ichthyology.” A conference on different species of fishes? No.
On June 26, 2017, a joint statement issued by the US President and the Indian Prime Minister at the end of the latter’s visit to the US, enlarged the definition: “As responsible stewards in the Indo-Pacific region, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi agreed that a close partnership between the United States and India is central to peace and stability in the region.”
Amongst others, the objective of the Indo-US partnership was to increase free and fair trade and the strengthening of energy linkages: the new concept was clearly to counter the seemingly unstoppable Chinese advances in the South China Sea and elsewhere on the oceans.
At the time of the Conference, I wondered why France was not included as a participant: “nobody thought of it”, I was told. All this has changed after President Macron’s visit to India in March. Addressing a French gathering in Delhi, the dynamic President reminded his countrymen: “France is a power of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans; we are present at the Reunion, we are also there in French Polynesia and New Caledonia. And we are a maritime power, it is often forgotten but France is the second maritime power in the world. We have a strong navy, we have nuclear submarines equipped like few other powers in the world; a maritime surveillance capability through our own satellites and technologies; it is obvious we are a military and intelligence power ranking us among the first nations in the world.”
France was ready to work with India on the oceans. The same month, The Asia Times reported: “The French Jeanne d’Arc naval task force, integrated by British personnel and units, is heading for East Asia and the South Pacific. Paris and London say this five-month deployment is aimed at improving maritime cooperation between their navies. In reality, it can be read as a new initiative by the two European countries to support the United States in its freedom of navigation operations in the region against China’s military activism.”
More recently, an article published in The South China Morning Postnoted: “France is increasing its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, sending warships through the South China Sea and planning air exercises to help counter China’s military build-up in disputed waters.”
It is clear that France has definitively become a player to count on in the Indo-Pacific in the years to come.
The Shangri-La Dialogue, annually organised in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent think-tank based in London, saw Prime Minister Modi giving the keynote address. It was also an occasion for France to express its interests. Florence Parly, the French Armed Forces Minister told the forum: “I am also delighted to be here, because this region, for us too, is home. It is good to remind that France has 9 million square kilometre of exclusive economic zone in the Indo-Pacific area; 1.5 million citizen in our five overseas territories, 200,000 expatriates, different sets of permanent military forces, and vital economic interests in the region.”
She announced that a French naval task group, together with British helicopters and ships, would soon be visiting Singapore “and then sail ‘into certain areas’ of the South China Sea.” But she made it clear that France was for ‘Raising the bar for regional cooperation’ (the theme of the Dialogue) but not raising’ regional competition.’
A brochure published by the French ministry, made it clear that the respect of international maritime law was a serious issue for Paris: “In the South China Sea, the large-scale land reclamation activities and the militarisation of contested archipelagos have changed the status quo and increased tensions. The potential consequences of this crisis have a global impact considering that one third of the world trade transits through this strategic region.”
It observed that “France is rooted in the southern part of the Indian Ocean… and is also anchored in the Pacific Ocean… Our armed forces stationed overseas and our permanent military basing allow France to fulfil the security responsibilities of a resident power of the Indo-Pacific.”
Modi concluded his keynote address by mentioning “Five S”, Samman (respect); Samvad (dialogue); Sahayog (cooperation), Shanti (peace), and Samriddhi (prosperity). Paris can certainly agree with this. France will indeed be a major player in the region in the years to come; a close Indo-French collaboration can only be a win-win proposition. China has to realise that the Middle Kingdom can’t engulf the seas around it.