A French naval officer in front of the Vendémiaire frigate. Photo: Twitter

China’s official state media lost no time in highlighting the rift in United States-European Union relations brought on by Washington and London’s surprise nuclear submarine deal with Australia.

It began with a September 18 op-ed stating that the newly formed trilateral security partnership, known as AUKUS, has “dealt a psychological blow for Japan, India as Quad members” – referring to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that brings together the US, India, Japan and Australia in a China-countering strategic embrace.

Then, on September 21, a columnist for the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece wrote in a commentary that “people used to think that Trump was the US president who inflicted most damage on transatlantic ties and [current US president] Biden would repair them, but now Biden has done something even worse — inflicting more damage by betraying allies.”

Another columnist went even further by stating that “Canberra will…coerce ASEAN to stand with the US and Australia against China” while noting that Malaysia had “responded strongly” against the AUKUS pact. India should also be careful because, as the columnist wrote, “the US can betray or abandon them as well.”

To be sure, recent Indo-Pacific developments have caused a serious crisis in relations between the US and France, which was set to sell a fleet of diesel submarines to Australia in a now-canceled US$66 billion deal.

France recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra, a move that Paris announced it would reverse by next week in the case of the US, while the European Union rallied behind its French partner.

EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York that “more cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation” was needed for “a stable Indo-Pacific region” where China is the main rising power.

While such disagreements verging on conflicts of interest should not be underestimated, they will not necessarily work to China’s advantage, as its nationalistic state media is seeking to portray.

The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Waller, a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbour on November 2, 2016. Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

Immediately after losing the submarine deal with Australia, French president Emmanuel Macron phoned India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss bilateral cooperation. Lost on many international observers is that France is an Indian Ocean power, controlling more maritime territory there than any other country.

France’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Indian Ocean encompasses altogether 2,650,013 square kilometers, which is possible because of all the scattered islands which are under French control.

Réunion with 860,000 inhabitants is a department d’outre mer, or an overseas department of France, and so is the smaller island of Mayotte northwest of Madagascar with a population of 270,000. Réunion and Mayotte are also included as overseas departments of France.

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, Cloriosa and Tromelin.

None of those islands have any permanent population but French scientists and researchers are based on some of them on a rotational basis.

Most of those islands are small but the largest and most mountainous, Kerguelen, is half the size of Connecticut. More than 100 French scientists are based in Kerguelen during the summer and somewhat fewer in 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.

France’s total troop strength in the southern Indian Ocean includes 1,900 plus aircraft and naval patrol boats, as well as 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.

Sailors of the French Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle deployed in the Indian Ocean. Photo: AFP / Marine Nationale

So far France’s emphasis in the Indian Ocean Region has been on combating piracy, conducting humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and climate research, and supporting US-led war efforts in the Middle East.

But as the new Cold War between the West and China intensifies, France’s role in this power game is bound to become more, not less, important. Significantly, France has advanced the idea of routine EU patrols in the South China Sea to exercise freedom of navigation in waters claimed by China.

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 not overtly 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, France has “increasingly converging interests and shared democratic values.” France’s “privileged relations” with India are “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.

Although the “partnership” with Australia is now on the rocks, French-Indian military cooperation is showing no signs of letting up. In April, France and India carried out their 19th bilateral Varuna exercise in the Arabian Sea.

The exercises involved advanced air defense and anti-submarine exercises, fixed and rotary wing flying operations, and what was described by the organizers as “tactical maneuvers.” India and France also have a military logistics agreement signed in 2018 that gives reciprocal access to each other’s military facilities in the region.

France also maintains close defense relations with Japan. The two sides agreed to “actively” maintain defense cooperation to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific, according to a joint statement released after a summit meeting this month between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Macron.

As with the partnership between India and France, the main concern is China’s increasingly assertive presence in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy holds live fire drills in the South China Sea. Image: Agencies

On September 18, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense and Dassault, a French aircraft manufacturer, signed a $28.45 million technical service agreement for work on 60 Mirage 2000 jets that were bought in the 1990s. To China’s chagrin, France sold six Lafayette frigates to Taiwan during that same period.

In May last year, when it became known that France had sent technicians to Taiwan, China issued a stern warning to Paris not to “harm Sino-French relations.” France responded by telling China it should focus on battling the Covid-19 virus instead. Taiwan is now seeking to buy French equipment to upgrade the missile interference systems on its Lafayettes.

While France’s recall of its ambassadors in Canberra and New York ambassadors is unprecedented, it should be remembered that it is not the first time France and the US were at strategic loggerheads.

When the US sought to get United Nations Security Council approval for authorizing an invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was retracted after it became clear that permanent members France — and Russia — were going to use their veto power to stop it.

France’s then-foreign minister Dominique de Villepin also received loud applause for his speech against the Iraq war at the United Nations on February 14, 2003. 

There is no doubt that the “fragmentation” EU foreign policy chief Borrell spoke about is real, but so too is the EU’s desire to counter and contain the rise of China.

But while Beijing may seek to leverage the bungled and rancorous strategic power play among Western states, there is still little if any dispute where the ultimate battle lines are being drawn.