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Can France and the UK Pivot to the Pacific?

| July 05, 2018

The U.S. administration’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy will seek to “sustain favorable balances of power” by bolstering cooperation with its critical allies, Australia, India, and Japan. But these are not the only countries with vested interests in the region. Europe’s two greatest military powers, France and the UK, are currently pursuing their own versions of a Pacific pivot. At the June 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, the French and British defense ministers outlined their ambitions and announced that both navies would sail warships through contested waters in the South China Sea to help promote the free and open rules-based order. “When we meet here in Asia, we may no longer be part of the same European club [the EU], but we still share something of very deep significance: vision, strength, values, and a willingness to protect them,” said French defense minister Florence Parly.

Europe remains a relatively small player in the Indo-Pacific. But as global middle powers, France and the UK could meaningfully contribute to regional security efforts, particularly by expanding bilateral and multilateral cooperation initiatives with likeminded regional partners. The United States should welcome their growing interest and presence in the region and maximize their involvement in U.S. strategic partnerships. Beyond the apparent benefits, this collaboration could help reverse the downward spiral currently engulfing the transatlantic relationship.

France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

As the only European nation with a significant presence in the Pacific—with five territories including New Caledonia and French Polynesia—France has an obvious interest in the region’s security affairs. (Although, in November 2018, New Caledonia, France’s largest overseas territory in the region, will hold a self-determination referendum.) France also has a robust military presence by European standards and is increasing its freedom of navigation operations and regional partnerships. Key French strategic documents—including its 2018 France and Security in the Indo-Pacific policy and 2017 Defence and National Security Strategic Review—reflect the importance France assigns to the region. Among other priorities, France desires to protect its territories and overseas citizens, increase arms exports, curb nuclear proliferation and terrorism, ensure maritime security and critical trade links, and uphold the rules-based international order. Viewing the region through an Indo-Pacific lens comes naturally to France, which has both assets and a military role in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Consequently, France has taken an unusually firm stand on China’s expansion in the South China Sea and elsewhere. In his speech at the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue, then defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian delivered a clarion call for the establishment of joint EU patrols in the area. While little movement has been made, the French and British navies have set up the joint Jeanne d’Arc naval training and patrol task force in the region. And since 2014, French naval vessels have regularly patrolled the South China Sea and ports of call in regional states. At the 2018 dialogue, Parly pledged that France would continue to step up its operations in the area in the coming years.

As part of this effort, President Emmanuel Macron—who has already traveled extensively in the region—seeks to strengthen France’s ties and partnerships to counter China’s movements against the rules-based international order and protect French interests. He also desires to enhance France’s global standing, amid the uncertainty surrounding U.S. security commitments. Before Macron took office, former president François Hollande cultivated bilateral ties with key states, such as India, Japan, and Australia, and sought to develop new bilateral frameworks with Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and New Zealand, making France by far the most regionally engaged European country.

Looking to build on these initiatives, Macron visited New Delhi in March 2018 to reinforce France’s strategic partnership with India, particularly in the maritime domain. The two countries signed a Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region, as well as a separate bilateral logistical cooperation agreement. The latter deepens cooperation in three areas: logistical support, maritime awareness, and third-country collaboration. Under the agreement, India and France will have access to each other’s military facilities.

France’s military presence in the UAE and Djibouti and its French territories means the Indian Ocean is a natural place for cooperation. The annual India-France Varuna naval exercises begun in 2001 continue today, and Indian navies have been visiting French naval bases during deployments. New Delhi and Paris are also reportedly consulting on potential trilateral arrangements with the UAE, which hosts a French naval base and has forged a closer relationship with India in recent years. Another core part of the French-Indian relationship is industrial defense cooperation. France sold six Scorpène attack submarines to India for $3.75 billion in 2005 and thirty-six Rafale fighter jets for $8.8 billion in 2016.

Macron’s early efforts have also focused on France’s key regional bilateral relationship with Japan. In September 2017, Macron and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe agreed to advance talks on a bilateral acquisition and cross-servicing agreement. These talks began in earnest in January 2018 at the fourth two-plus-two ministerial security dialogue involving the French and Japanese foreign and defense ministers. At the summit, both countries agreed to start negotiating the agreement, which would allow them to share defense supplies such as ammunitions and to cooperate on technology research and capability development. The ministers also discussed joint naval exercises to send a clear message to China about freedom of navigation. Previous maritime cooperation includes the May 2017 practice landing of a French Mistral-class amphibious assault carrier in Japan as part of the Jeanne d’Arc task force mission. Abe’s visit to Paris in July 2018—to celebrate Bastille Day—will afford the next opportunity to advance talks on joint maritime security efforts.

France has also stepped up its security partnership with Australia in recent years. Notably, in 2016, France struck a $40 billion deal with Australia to supply twelve new submarines, and in March 2017, the two countries signed a Joint Statement of Enhanced Strategic Partnership that includes promoting long-term strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The agreement calls for, among other things, annual defense minister meetings, strategic dialogue with senior defense officials, and joint defense consultations, including on submarine tasks. During Macron’s visit to Canberra in May 2018, the two nations signed cooperation agreements that included establishing an annual Australia-France defense industry symposium and joint logistical support in the Pacific between the Australian Defense Force and French Armed Forces. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed his desire for France to play a role in the Pacific “given it is the last European member of the EU being present in the Pacific after the Brexit.” Macron stated that he hoped France and Australia could be “at the heart” of the Indo-Pacific axis. Both leaders adopted a conciliatory tone regarding China, going to great lengths to emphasize that Beijing was not an enemy and was welcome to participate in the regional rules-based order.

Beyond bilateral partnerships, France participates in several multilateral regional security formats. During Macron’s visit to Canberra in May 2018, he touted the need for a “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis,” essentially a regional security triangle, to uphold the rules-based order and regularly bring together defense and foreign ministers. All three countries are reportedly taking the proposed initiative seriously. Paris has also expressed interest in the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue group, also known as the Quad (with Australia, India, and Japan). And there are speculations that France, alongside the UK, could receive a formal invitation to join the group as an observer. Paris is also actively participating in various official and unofficial regional security fora. For example, it is an active founding member—with Australia, New Zealand, and the United States—of the bilingual, twenty-six-nation Pacific Community, a scientific and technical organization created in 1947.

As the above engagement indicates, in the Indo-Pacific region, France mainly seeks to protect its national interests and the rules-based international order. More broadly, however, it aims to send a clear message to China on maritime security and elevate its own global footprint in recognition of the importance of burden sharing with the United States. At the same time, France supports a joint EU policy toward the region, especially EU responses to developments in the South China Sea.

United Kingdom’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

With deep historical ties to several countries in the Indo-Pacific, the UK is a legacy actor in the region’s security architecture. With Brexit threatening to loosen ties between the UK and its European allies and other parts of the world, London is keen to establish new partnerships and reactivate dormant relationships as part of an “all of Asia” strategy. Moreover, it wants to reinforce its regional presence and activities under the banner of “Global Britain.” While primarily focused on forging new trade relationships, the UK also desires to bolster its diplomatic presence and maritime security contributions.

The Indo-Pacific region is important to the UK from both a strategic and economic perspective. Similar to France, and as outlined in its 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK’s main regional aims include protecting its national interests; promoting trade and arms exports; projecting global influence, particularly naval power; helping to ensure freedom of navigation; and upholding the rules-based international order.

Although the UK has little territorial and military presence in the region—its contributions are mainly limited to naval deployments and participation in military exercises—recent developments may offer some opportunity to change this calculus. For example, in April 2018, a permanent British naval base was opened in Bahrain. Staffed by 500 troops, the base can support the operations of larger ships, including carriers. While it is designated as the UK’s main hub of operations in the Persian Gulf, the base could potentially serve as a launchpad for activities in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim. The Royal Navy already has three warships currently deployed to the Pacific (HMS Albion, HMS Sutherland, and, joining later this year, HMS Argyll). In addition, the UK plans to deploy one of its two new aircraft carriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth) and its accompanying battle group in the Pacific by 2021, including to the South China Sea. The aircraft carrier is still under construction.

In terms of bilateral defense partnerships, Australia is particularly eager to see more British involvement in the region. Both countries enjoy very close military and cultural ties dating back centuries. Australia is still the most preferred destination for British citizens living abroad, far ahead of the United States and European neighbors. In 2017, the two nations signed an updated Defence and Security Cooperation Treaty to deepen military cooperation. Their foreign and defense ministers also attend the annual Australia–United Kingdom Ministerial Consultations.

During his visit down under in February 2018, UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson reiterated London’s commitment to Australia and to the Pacific more generally. Australia is the UK’s thirteenth-largest military export market, with $11.4 billion worth of goods and services sold in 2015. A British contractor, BAE Systems, recently won a $26 billion tender to build Australia’s new fleet of frigates. The countries’ participation in two intelligence-sharing alliances—the Five Eyes (with Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) and the Five Power Defence Arrangements (with Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore)—further highlight their military partnership.

Brexit has somewhat hampered the relationship with Australia, generally by monopolizing many of their leaders’ conversations. Furthermore, Australia’s ambition to become one of the world’s top ten arms exporters might cause friction should it eat away at the profit margins of a cash-strapped post-Brexit UK. Lastly, as close as London and Canberra may be on security issues, Washington remains Australia’s premier security partner, with France or the UK enjoying a lower priority—though uncertainty about U.S. leadership under President Donald Trump could present an opening for European powers.

The UK’s other military ally in the Pacific is Japan. The two countries maintain a two-plus-two dialogue between their defense and foreign ministers, and at a recent meeting in December 2017, they pledged to step up joint military exercises in the region. During Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit with Abe in August 2017, she stressed that the UK and Japan are “natural partners” and “each other’s closest security partners in Asia and Europe.” The two leaders released a five-page Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, outlining several concrete areas for strengthened cooperation.

Between 2013 and 2017, London was Tokyo’s second-largest arms’ provider after the United States. The UK’s Royal Navy ships policing UN sanctions on North Korea have docking rights in the Japanese harbor, and in October 2016, the UK’s Royal Air Force and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force held their first-ever joint aerial combat drill, dubbed Guardian North 16, in Japan.

Both countries’ militaries will be fielding F-35 fighter jets in the coming years, allowing for maximum interoperability and optimal coordination with the United States. And underlining their long-term commitment to cooperation is their plan to jointly develop a new, advanced stealth fighter aircraft. The Royal Navy has also signed a trilateral defense agreement with the navies of Japan and the United States to deepen cooperation in exercises and increase combined patrols. However, nonmilitary factors could impact their future relationship. Tokyo is particularly wary about the effects of Brexit, even though both countries have discussed developing a trade enhancing mechanism once London’s departure from the EU is finalized.

In contrast to the aforementioned Indian-British bilateral partnerships, India seems reluctant to deepen its military cooperation with the UK—despite, or perhaps because of, the history linking both countries. London does benefit from legacy networks and shared cultural ties. For instance, New Delhi is an active member of the Commonwealth, a forum where it can engage many Asian nations without China being in the room. Both countries signed a Defence and International Security Partnership in November 2015, and in 2017, then UK defense secretary Michael Fallon met his Indian counterpart in New Delhi to reinforce both countries’ commitment to the partnership. Nevertheless, New Delhi remains suspicious of the ulterior motives of its former imperial ruler, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last visit to London in April 2018 was overshadowed by acrimonious exchanges around visas for Indian workers.

Their cooling relationship is clearly reflected in arms sales numbers. Though India was the UK’s second-largest arms importer between 2012 and 2016, it has now dropped out of the top three. Similarly, the UK is now the fifth-largest arms exporter to India, down from the third spot five years ago. Further, the $300 million sale of twenty trainer aircraft to the Indian Air Force has stalled for three years. Lastly, as with Australia and Japan, the UK seems intent on securing a free trade agreement with India to offset the losses caused by Brexit. This British priority has put military matters with New Delhi on a slow track.

The UK also has military ties to many countries in Southeast Asia. For example, it is tied to Malaysia and Singapore through the Five Power Defence Arrangements and has boots on the ground in Brunei. The UK also recently signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen defense ties with Singapore. Notably, Indonesia was the third-largest importer of British arms between 2013 and 2017.

All the above developments indicate that the UK intends to promote a “Global Britain” and direct some of its military, economic, and diplomatic attention to the East. It benefits from bilateral relationships with Australia, India, and Japan and is pursuing outreach efforts with many of the smaller players in the region. That said, there are serious question marks about the UK’s reach until the carrier battle groups are delivered in the 2020s, and Brexit may force Britain to prioritize commercial relationships over strategic ones. In many ways, France is in a stronger position in the Pacific for the years to come.

Enhancing Cooperation Between the Middle Powers

Because France and the UK have complementary and, in some cases, overlapping roles to play in the region, enhancing Franco-British cooperation in the Indo-Pacific makes sense. There is already a good track record to build on, and working together, France and the UK could provide a platform for other European countries, such as Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, to increase their contributions to Indo-Pacific security efforts (for example, ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea or supporting certain training efforts). By demonstrating a greater interest and willingness to engage in regional affairs, the UK could also alleviate allies’ concerns about the impact of Brexit and rebut the declinist narrative surrounding its departure from the EU. Meanwhile, France is slated to become the leading EU power in the region after Brexit.

A growing European presence will also provide alternative ways for traditional U.S. allies to hedge against a rising China and more uncertain U.S. leadership. Although U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has recommitted the United States to engaging in the Indo-Pacific, there are still lingering concerns about the Trump administration’s ability to maintain its leadership role in the region and possible U.S. retrenchment. Having likeminded European states play a more active role in the region will help build a more closely networked Indo-Pacific security architecture. French and British freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea already complement U.S. efforts and send a signal that there is a broad-based international coalition behind them. The majority of regional states will therefore continue to welcome French and British involvement in the Indo-Pacific for the foreseeable future. That said, any European effort in the region will only be effective if it is coordinated with Washington.

Plugginf into the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy

The growing interest by Paris and London for engaging in Indo-Pacific security affairs deserves to be taken seriously. But with the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy still a work in progress, it remains unclear what supporting roles, if any, European allies will be able to play as part of a broader U.S.-led approach. Although bolstering partnerships is a core component of the strategy, what this means in terms of concrete areas where allies can bring added value is an open question. Similarly, the U.S.-led Quad mechanism is still in its infancy; while bringing in France and the UK as official observers makes sense, until its role is further clarified, expectations for meaningful European engagement should probably be kept modest.

Given Paris and London’s appetite for increased participation, Washington should purposefully incorporate its European allies as it further formulates and implements its Indo-Pacific strategy. Washington could help ensure consistency and coordination among current and future regional security initiatives. In principle, both France and the UK espouse the safeguarding of a free and open Indo-Pacific and could lend international support and legitimacy to the effort. Special attention should be paid to areas where European powers can add value and complement U.S.-led efforts, such as certain training functions and maritime security responsibilities.

Of course, European and U.S. shared interests in the Indo-Pacific go beyond mere security concerns. European and U.S. officials are also concerned about China’s trade and economic practices and the geostrategic implications of projects such as its Belt and Road Initiative. Ideally, transatlantic cooperation and coordination should extend beyond the realm of security. However, the Trump administration’s imposition of trade tariffs against its European partners undermines joint U.S.-EU efforts to address shared challenges posed by China on trade. Therefore, with the economic dimension of the transatlantic agenda currently in tatters, insulating the security agenda is crucial. Joint action in the Indo-Pacific represents one of the few remaining areas where meaningful cooperation between the United States and Europe—particularly France and the UK—is still possible. The United States should welcome increased interest and activities by its French and British allies in the region and try to maximize their involvement in the partnerships that will be at the core of its own emerging Indo-Pacific strategy.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Le Corre, Philippe.“Can France and the UK Pivot to the Pacific?.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 5, 2018.

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