French Act East – and Beyond the Sea – Policy?

With military bases in Djibouti and Abu Dhabi, and operations in Africa, France seemed reluctant to go further and cross the Indus River to explore Asia. It appears that Asia, between the Indian and Chinese geopolitical poles, has been for a long time its diplomatic ‘Dead end’. However, French political scientists have begun to examine Southeast Asia which in the past was the forte of the archaeologists. Is this a prologue to a bigger role for France in Indo-Pacific, based on regional opportunities, national motivations and on what Paris can offer?

First, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ offers a window of opportunity for France. It is an active member of two important multilateral forums i.e. Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and has three naval bases in Reunion Island, Nouméa and Papeete. Furthermore, a large part of its trade– from Asian factories to French markets – passes through the Indo-Pacific, and the third biggest shipping company in the world (CMA-CGM) is French.

As far as ASEAN is concerned, the French approach should not be centripetal i.e. from the peripheries to the ASEAN core. Reunion Island and Nouméa (New Caledonia) are 5,768 kilometres and 6,634 kilometres respectively away from Jakarta. Paris should move from a kind of “Look East Policy” (from outside) to a proper “Act East Policy” (from inside), and follow a centrifuge strategy, in tune with the fundamentals of “ASEAN centrality”. Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur have recently reminded that ASEAN must follow its own institutional path, away from the political gravity or “benevolent hegemony” (Fukuyama) of big powers. This approach perfectly matches with the sui generis European Union, de Gaulle’s speech in Phnom Penh in 1966, French votes in the United Nations, and recent reactions towards both China and the US.

Second, there is a strong political will in France to engage ASEAN. French Ministers of Defence have attended five of the last six Shangri-La Dialogues. In July 2018, the Singaporean Prime Minister invited President Emmanuel Macron to the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue. In 2017, a French president visited Indonesia and Singapore since last visits in 1986 and 2004 respectively. Moreover, in 2015 and 2016, French Senate and National Assembly published detailed reports urging the government for an active presence in the ASEAN region.

These diplomatic manoeuvres also support economic interests such as trade and sales of French military equipment, a point French Prime Minister highlighted in Hanoi in December 2018. But, on second thought, Paris could also be motivated by the indirect promotion of multilateralism, in the wake of the Paris Peace Forum, inspired by the COP 21, and – probably or unconsciously – as a response to pressures from Washington and Beijing on ASEAN countries to choose a camp.

Third, France cannot compete with China in terms of investments. Instead, defence diplomacy should be a significant part of the strategy to achieve these short and long terms objectives. For example, five of the six last Jeanne d’Arc missions,an annual deployment undertaken by the French Navy, crossed through the Indian Ocean. It is believed that Charles-de-Gaulle the nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier would visit ports in Southeast Asia in 2019. Another French engagement in the region is marked by the presence of French Liaison Officers at the Singaporean Information Fusion Centre since 2009.

A famous French slogan during the 1973 crisis read “in France, we have no oil [or money], but ideas”. In the current contexts, French ‘soft power’ is also noteworthy. Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister praised the French model to promote integration through sports after the 2018 Football World Cup. Moreover, laïcité is generally not understood but it deserves greater attention in Southeast Asian “plural societies” (Furnivall); it is a useful legal tool for the freedom of religion in multi-religious countries, including within armed forces with the help of official chaplains.

Last but not least, the French model to enforce law in Exclusive Economic Zones, (ranked second largest in the world) could possibly give unexpected options to Jakarta and Manila, among others. Indonesia and the Philippines are indeed working on their own law enforcement agencies at sea. In this process, they could consider the French model, namely ‘State Action at Sea’, which is different from the ‘navy & coast-guard’ organisation – with maritime prefects (or governors) working under the authority of the Prime Minister, without any assets, and coordinating initiatives, based on the equipment and legal powers to collect evidences of every agency. France (including Reunion Island) is involved in the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre(Madagascar) and the Regional Centre for Operational Coordination (Seychelles), with the support of the European Union, besides a possible collaboration with the new Information Fusion Centre in India.

France is an ardent supporter of multilateralism. Like Paris, New Delhi and the United Nations are likely to defend multilateralism instead of a bipolar world. Similarly, they both believe in the sea as the major frontline of the global challenges: migration, climate change, smuggling and proliferation. To reinforce this dual approach, Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum and bebasaktif (free and active) diplomacy as a non-permanent member of the Security Council merits promotion. Last, Japanese coast-guards and Tokyo’s open-minded diplomacy are also worth being carefully surveyed.

Same trends for diplomatic autonomy and focus on EEZ were seen after the last APEC summit. African countries are also starting to be suspicious of China, while France is trying to stabilize their coastal waters, with the growing help of NGOs (One Earth Foundation, Sea Shepherd, etc.). In essence, a movement has begun within ASEAN and, supported by these seemingly strategic convergences, might not stop in the Indo-Pacific but would find reference at the UN Headquarters… except if voters replace national leaders in the next elections and if there is a misunderstanding between countries regarding the wish for more ‘multipolarity’ rather than real ‘multilateralism’.

In anyway, “humanity’s future” shall still lie out at sea, not only because of its natural and unknown resources, but also because of the underestimated diplomatic opportunities that it offers.

Dr Eric Frécon is Coordinator of the Observatory on Southeast Asia, Asia Centre, Paris, France.

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