A visitor to Saint-Denis, the capital of Réunion, may be forgiven for thinking he or she is in France. There are French patisseries and wine bars, shops and road signs are written in French, and its residents are French citizens and vote in French elections. The small Indian Ocean island uses the euro as its currency and is included in the European Union.
France also keeps a Marine Infantry Regiment as well as aircraft and other military equipment on the small island. It represents the only Western military presence part from the American base on Diego Garcia further to the north in what is now being referred to in strategic terms as the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
France actually controls more maritime territory in the IOR than any other country. Its Exclusive Economic Zone encompasses 2,650,013 square kilometers based on all the scattered islands in the maritime region which are under French control. With 850,000 residents, Réunion is a department d’outre mer, or an overseas department of France, and so is its smaller island of Mayotte northwest of Madagascar with a population of 215,000.
In addition to those inhabited islands, France also controls the Kerguelen islands, the Crozet archipelago, the St Paul and Amsterdam islands, and a string of smaller islets around and near Madagascar: Juan de Nova, Europa, Bassas da India, Gloriosa and Tromelin. None of those islands are home to permanent populations, but French scientists and researchers are based on some of them on a rotational basis.
Most are small but the largest and most mountainous, Kerguelen, is half the size of the US state of Connecticut. More than 100 French scientists are based in Kerguelen during the summer and somewhat fewer in the winter. Its main settlement, Port-aux-Français, has a satellite tracking station run by the French Space Agency, scientific laboratories, technical installations and, it is rumored, stockpiles of weapons.
What is official is that France, apart from its troops on Réunion, maintains a military base in its former colony Djibouti on the Horn of Africa as well as a detachment of the Foreign Legion on Mayotte.
Total French troop strength in the southern Indian Ocean is estimated at around 1,900 plus aircraft and naval patrol boats, and 1,350 soldiers with air support in Djibouti. France also maintains a naval base in the United Arab Emirates with 700 troops, ships and aircraft.
France’s emphasis to date in the IOR has been on combating piracy, conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, climate research and supporting US-led war efforts in the Middle East. But as the new Cold War between the West and China in the IOR intensifies, France’s role in this power game is bound to become more important.
Significantly, France has also recently advanced the idea of routine EU patrols in the South China Sea to exercise freedom of navigation, a clear snub to China in view of its complaints about similar US operations in the contested maritime area.
A December 2016 French government statement said China’s “large-scale reclamation works and the militarization of contested archipelagos has changed the status quo and increased tensions” and that its “unilateral initiatives…are likely to threaten the security of navigation and overflights.”
So far, no other EU country apart from Great Britain has committed to the sensitive naval patrols. Apart from its presence in the Indian Ocean, France also has possessions in the South Pacific — New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna — which gives it a strategic edge in both oceans.
Although China is never mentioned as an adversary, a document published by the French ministry of defense in 2016 emphasizes “a major strategic partnership” with Australia and India. With Australia, the report says, France has “increasingly converging interests and shared democratic values.”
France’s “privileged relations” with India, meanwhile, is “embodied by major yearly exercises conducted between navies (Varuna), air forces (Garuda) and armies (Shakti).” According to the same document, France has also established a “partnership of exception” with Japan, vague language in acknowledgement of Tokyo’s pacifist constitution.
The document also stresses France’s unique relationship with its allies: “Vis-à-vis these countries, France holds the advantage of having a strong alliance with the United States while maintaining its strategic autonomy.”
France is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and thus a major US strategic ally, though not always a loyal one. That also gives it more freedom of maneuver in its relationships with other IOR powers.
While few analysts foresee an open maritime conflict with China any time soon, its recent deployment of warships and submarines into the Indian Ocean has sparked a growing wariness of Beijing’s long-term plans for the IOR.
That’s prompted several nations, including France, to pay more attention to balance of power politics in a region of the world where Paris has maintained a steady if not quiet influence and which the UN once proposed in the early 1970’s should become a “zone of peace.”