France's Landing Helicopter Deck (LHD) Mistral participated in the 2017 Jeanne d’Arc naval task group that sailed through the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo: Courtesy  Embassy of France, Australia
France's Landing Helicopter Deck (LHD) Mistral participated in the 2017 Jeanne d’Arc naval task group that sailed through the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo: Courtesy Embassy of France, Australia

France has stepped up its military presence in the Indian Ocean and Pacific waters in recent years, particularly in the South Pacific, where Australia and New Zealand are increasingly concerned about China’s geopolitical activities.

But despite its growing defense cooperation with Canberra and Wellington, Paris rejects the notion that French warships are deployed in the region to contain the Chinese navy.

“If you are asking if we do conduct joint patrols with the navies of Australia and New Zealand to contest China’s policy in the South Pacific region, the answer is no,” Rear Admiral Laurent Lebreton told Asia Times in his first interview as commander of French armed forces in Polynesia and commanding officer of the Pacific maritime area.

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France is a Pacific actor by virtue of its New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna dependencies, which have about  500,000 French citizens. Thanks to these territories, it also has an exclusive economic zone of 11.6 million square kilometers to defend, the second-largest of any country; this includes 7.3 million square kilometers in the South Pacific.

“The Indo-Pacific is a strategic region for France, depicted as such in the 2013 White Paper on Defense and the 2017 Strategic Defense and Security Review,” Lebreton said, noting that France was the only European power with a permanent military presence there. It has forces based in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Staying under the radar

On average the French navy conducts three missions/deployments in Southeast Asia each year, using frigates stationed in those two territories or units deployed from mainland France. In addition, the French navy undertakes the annual Jeanne d’Arc mission, a five-month deployment in Asia-Pacific, which this year included British marines and navy personnel.

The taskforce sailed through the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in June and was reportedly shadowed by Chinese warships. Lebreton stressed that all French deployments were consistent with international law and freedom of navigation principles.

“By deploying on a regular basis its navy, France shows that the Indo-Pacific is a region that counts, both in terms of intelligence and capacity of intervention,” the rear admiral said. “French armed forces regularly deploy naval assets in the South Pacific region to assert their presence, improve knowledge and stay ready to prevent crises.”

During his visit to Australia in May, French President Emmanuel Macron said France and Australia should be at the heart of an Indo-Pacific axis with the United States, India and Japan. He also called on China to do more to preserve  the rules-based order in the region and, in a veiled swipe at Beijing, said the region should be protected from hegemony.

Whether France could join the informal Quadrilateral forum of Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and Delhi is under discussion. Francois Godement, director of the Asia and China Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “Macron’s Australia speech actually follows an increased involvement by France in the Indo-Pacific,” but noted that “the Indo-Pacific and Quad are concepts being filled with very diverse and often bilateral initiatives rather than any formal alliance.”

Cooperation will continue

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, admitted that “there are obvious questions about how much strategic weight France can put into its Indo-Pacific commitments, and how much risk it is willing to incur in this region.” Nonetheless, he said France’s role should be taken seriously, including partnering with other democracies such as Australia and India.

Medcalf said Paris had a legitimate territorial presence in the Indo-Pacific and “much to offer as a strategic partner and defense supplier.”  “Macron is one of the few leaders at present willing to take a stand on issues of rules and liberal values in the international system,” he said.

New Zealand, which has a limited military capability, also raised concerns about China’s attitude to maritime rules in the South China Sea in its recent Strategic Defence Policy Statement, but it is unlikely to take direct measures to counter Chinese military moves.

As observed by Robert Ayson, a strategic studies professor at Wellington’s Victoria University, “it is too much of a stretch to see New Zealand joining Australia and France and other democracies in some sort of anti-China axis.” In his opinion, “Wellington will still want to get alongside Beijing to encourage it to be as cooperative and sensitive as possible in the South Pacific region.”

Lebreton noted that French forces have regular interactions with their regional partners, and especially with Australia and New Zealand through the FRANZ agreement, a 1992 framework set up to coordinate assistance for Pacific nations during natural disasters. “As often as possible, we work together to improve our interoperability, conducting interactions at sea or participating in common training initiatives or exercises such as Croix du Sud or Kakadu,” he said.

French sticking to the rules

None of these initiatives is aimed at China, Lebreton insisted, noting that France has a principled position on regional territorial disputes. “Just as anywhere else in the world, the behavior of our warships reflects the French commitment to the lawful, free and unhampered use of all oceans, in accordance with the UN Convention on Law of the Sea,” he said.

Paris apparently has no intention of arguing with Beijing about competing claims in the South China Sea. Lebreton echoed comments at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last June by Defense Minister Florence Parly, who said that France was not part of territorial disputes in the area, and nor would it be in the future.

Moreover, “the French government will insist on two tenets of the rules-based international order, that disputes should be resolved through legal means and negotiations, not by fait accompli, and freedom of navigation must be upheld”, he added.

For this reason, France fully supported the implementation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea that would be “legally binding, comprehensive, effective and consistent with international law”. 

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