France, the EU and the Indo-Pacific


By Pierre Tran

Paris – The temperature in the Indo Pacific region has risen for the Western allies in general and for France in particular.

President Emmanuel Macron clearly sees a pressing need for a switch to a new principal partner after Australia cancelled a planned order for the French designed Barracuda conventional attack submarine, deemed by Canberra to be inadequate to meet a perceived rising threat from China.

A highly public sign came with Macron’s Sept. 21 phone call to the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to discuss cooperation in the Indo Pacific.

Macron pointed up French commitment to a strengthened strategic autonomy for India, including its industrial and technology base, the Elysée office said in a statement.

The French geopolitical tie to the Indo China region will not be weakened by the loss of the Australian submarine contract, the armed forces minister said Sept. 24.

“We are a nation of the Indo-Pacific and breaking off a contract will not change anything,” Florence Parly told Le Monde afternoon daily. “We still have some two million French nationals in the region, 7,000 service personnel, and 93 percent of our exclusive economic zone.”

The European Union also sees the importance of the contested region, as could be seen in the publication on Sept. 16 of the EU strategy on the Indo-Pacific.

“The irony is that the Europeans had drafted a strategy on the Indo Pacific when this AUKUS partnership was announced,” Parly said. “That proves the Europeans are capable of deciding collectively where their interests lie.”

The minister was referring to the AUKAS alliance between Australia, the UK and US announced by US president Joe Biden on Sept. 15, with the center piece news that Canberra would acquire nuclear powered attack submarines in place of the French diesel-electric boats.

The EU Indo Pacific strategy showed member states saw the need to intervene outside the  borders of the European Union, she said, and this was part of building European defense.

That wider role of the EU will be set out in a white paper, dubbed strategic compass, due to be published next year when Macron takes up the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1.

“We have to make a choice: either Europe stands up or Europe fades away,” the defense minister said.

It remains to be seen the extent to which EU member states will step up to deliver a European military presence, one that would project power into the Indo Pacific, where the threat from Beijing was seen as great enough to prompt Canberra’s opting to acquire nuclear powered submarines with US and UK backing.

“The German government understands the French anger on the submarine decision,” a German diplomat said. “The decision showed the need to intensify work on a European Union multilateral policy for the Indo Pacific.

Indo Pacific Poses Problems

There is the law of the sea, right of navigation, and there is also the risk of poking the bear with China and the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

The diplomatic and operational sensitivity can be seen by the German navy’s dispatch of a frigate to fly the flag in the South China Sea.

A German frigate, the Bayern, sailed out of Wilhelmshaven naval base, northwestern Germany, for deployment in the South China Sea, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported Aug. 2. That would be the first time in almost 20 years a German warship would sail in those contested waters, in which China claims vast stretches of open sea and islands.

However, the German frigate’s voyage to the far side risked sending an “unclear” message, a research note from Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said May 4.

“Due to internal differences within the German government, the original plans for the deployment appear to have changed to specifically avoid antagonizing Beijing,” the note said.

Germany said it would not sail the frigate within 12 nautical miles of any territory claimed by China, the note said, although “maintaining ambiguity” about the Bayern’s deployment would have made “strategic sense.”

Despite the German statement of maritime intent, the Chinese foreign ministry warned that the principle of freedom of navigation “should not be used as an excuse to endanger the sovereignty and security of littoral countries,” the note said.

The German defense ministry had appeared to change the frigate’s course, so the warship would sail anti-clockwise rather than clockwise as previously planned, the note said, and that ruled out the Bayern engaging a naval passing exercise – or passex – with the British carrier group led by the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.

“So, rather than coordinating with European allies, let alone the United States, Germany is doing its own thing – a ‘missed opportunity’ according to one German official,” the note said. Berlin appeared to be sending the Bayern in response to pressure from France, the UK, US, and Japan, rather than standing up to China.

“It is therefore trying to square the circle of how to deploy a warship to the South China Sea without appearing to challenge China,” the note said.

China refused to allow the Bayern to call in at the port of Shanghai, the Agence-France Presse news agency reported, signalling displeasure at the German warship.

The German foreign ministry published last September its Indo Pacific guidelines, which pointed to increasing German naval activity in the region, including more liaison officers and sailing warships, South China Morning Post reported April 25.

China also issued a warning to the Royal Navy as the Queen Elizabeth carrier group prepared to sail into the South China Seas last month.

“The People’s Liberation Army Navy is at a high state of combat readiness,” reported the Global Times, a daily close to the Chinese communist party.

Reliving Trafalgar

The Australian submarine switch was a Trafalgar moment for France, showing Paris had perhaps overestimated its ability to “win partners in the Indo Pacific,” French website AeroDefenseNews reported. France was not a major power as it lacked the means, and therefore the influence over local actors in the region.

“Naval Group and France paid the price of being actors too small in the Indo Pacific, where there are two great rivals standing face to face – China and the United States,” the report said.

That Australian cancellation and the AUKUS alliance of the three English speaking nations sounded a wake up call for Europe, the report said, and it was up to the European Union to step up and play a full role, and make its voice heard, the report said.

Featured Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian PM Narendra Modi at a meeting in the Chateau of Chantilly, near Paris, on August 22, 2019.  © Pascal Rossignal, AFP

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