On May 3, 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron made the term “Indo-Pacific” a concept of French foreign policy for the first time—shortly after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had publicly dismissed the concept as an “attention-grabbing idea” that “will dissipate like ocean foam.”1
Macron’s speech, given at the Garden Island military base in Sydney, Australia, differed substantially in its objectives and content from President Donald Trump’s introduction of his own Indo-Pacific strategy in November 2017. Each strategy unveiled underlines that the United States’ and China’s radically opposing interests, in the Indo-Pacific and globally, are a central driver of contemporary international relations. However, naturally, France and the United States take different positions on the state of affairs. While both countries oppose China’s hegemonic designs, France is uncomfortable with the widening gulf between the United States and China.
France’s approach to the Indo-Pacific aims to protect the country’s international position and its specific interests—notably, in the overseas territories that anchor and give credibility to the French strategy. But the strategy’s implementation, a delicate exercise, will continually require French decisionmakers to have a clear vision of these interests and to avoid any rhetoric or dangerous confrontation with China while maintaining a central—but not exclusive—place for the United States in its traditional system of alliances.
Emergence of the Indo-Pacific Concept
The term “Indo-Pacific” is not new—Japan and Australia articulated doctrines on the concept in 2007 and 2013, respectively. But it has always been viewed differently. Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy focuses on enhancing global stability and prosperity, while Australia’s strategy aims to address an enduring dilemma: how to remain a safe and wealthy nation while reconciling its economic dependence on China with its strategic alliance with the United States. When the term entered the strategic vocabulary of the United States, it gained even greater importance, as well as a more confrontational character.
The Indo-Pacific concept has evolved in response to two connected but distinct strategic developments: the projection of power from China outward, which has accelerated spectacularly since President Xi Jinping came to power, and the exacerbation of the Sino-American rivalry.
Still, the strategic implications of the term remain as vague as its geographic scope. Following Macron’s visit to Australia, the former director of the Australian Office of National Assessments, Allan Gyngell, argued that “the Indo-Pacific does not exist. Like Asia-Pacific or Asia itself, the Indo-Pacific is simply a way for governments to define an international environment suited to their policy objectives in particular circumstances.” In other words, the Indo-Pacific is not a predetermined space in which the national strategies of states fit. Instead, it is the states’ strategies that define the geography of the Indo-Pacific.
In fact, while the term implies the inclusion of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, even their boundaries are determined differently by different actors according to their own interests. For France, the Indo-Pacific space extends from the shores of East Africa and southern Africa to the coasts of North, Central, and South America; and for France’s Ministry of the Armed Forces, it is “a security continuum which extends from Djibouti to French Polynesia.”2 Alternatively, for the United States, it stops at India’s shores. Meanwhile, ASEAN asserts its own “centrality” there—a concept that refers to both the organization’s consensus-based decisionmaking apparatus (seen as a protection against hegemonic temptations) and to the geographical situation that makes ASEAN a link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For India, which views the Indo-Pacific largely through its Look East policy, the space includes the entire Indian Ocean.
These diverse understandings of the Indo-Pacific may be the reason for the term’s strategic relevance. Polysemy can, of course, be a source of miscommunication, as the desire of each actor to define the concept based on their own interests may impede productive dialogue. But the term—however it is understood—suggests that the space is shaped not just by Sino-American polarization but also by more nuanced engagements in the region.
Indeed, while states’ various definitions of the Indo-Pacific depend on the precise nature and extent of regional cooperation that each state desires, the definitions ultimately depend above all on the very possibility of such cooperation. In the end, the concept only has a strategic future because it allows states to manage (1) the partially contradictory desires that arise from China’s ascent (in other words, their need to maintain access to the Chinese market and their need to guarantee their security); (2) the growing uncertainties regarding the United States’ commitment to the security of its allies; and (3) the desire to avoid the undercurrents of Sino-American polarization.
The China Factor
The geographic and thematic differences of the states’ various Indo-Pacific strategies are best understood in the context of China’s increasing economic, political, and military presence in the Indian Ocean, South Asia, the South Pacific, Africa, and beyond.
After the launch of China’s development strategy, a focus on the exportation of Chinese production surpluses quickly gave way to a more ambitious policy: the desire to dethrone Western countries from their leadership in the global economy. In addition to investing capital abroad, China soon began establishing production and transaction standards in order to gain the comparative advantage for Chinese manufacturing.
Beijing’s economic strategy was next coupled with more military deployments. Initially, this just reflected the strategic consequences of its economic performance. In becoming a world economic power, it had to protect its access to raw materials and its maritime communication routes. Eventually, however, China’s ambitions grew; it desired “to protect not only the [Chinese Communist] party and the national territory, or even be able to take Taiwan, but also to protect broader interests such as economic development and contribute to world peace.”3
In this respect, China’s fight against piracy in the Indian Ocean was not only proof of its abilities but also a sign of its intentions. In addition to mobilizing forces to defend its ships, Beijing established a significant submarine presence—of little use in fighting pirates but ideal for gathering intelligence and strengthening deterrence. In 2017, when China opened a military base in Djibouti capable of accommodating about 10,000 soldiers, the debate changed. Questions were raised about China’s real intentions.
The U.S. Factor
While the Trump administration’s articulation of the Indo-Pacific concept does not owe entirely to the launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, there is no doubt that the development has profoundly influenced the United States’ perception of its rivalry with China.
The United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy goes beyond highlighting Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific; it paints this expansionism as a leading threat to U.S. interests. China is seen as a revisionist power that uses its “military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage.”
While Trump is hardly the first U.S. president to highlight the threat posed by China, previous administrations did not adopt such explicit terms. The U.S. National Security Strategy published in December 2017 not only introduces the Indo-Pacific into the political language of the United States but also describes it as an instrument in “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order.”
It is this clarity that concerns U.S. allies, who fear being forced to choose between Beijing and Washington.4 U.S. partners support the central goal of an Indo-Pacific free from Chinese coercion and recognize that upholding a law-based international order is essential to managing the challenge of China’s growing economic and military power. But this deliberate polarization—which is more or less accepted by China, albeit with some trepidation—is occurring amid growing uncertainty about the credibility of the United States’ commitment to the security of its allies. This uncertainty was, of course, already significant under the presidency of Barack Obama. However, it has grown deeper since the introduction of Trump’s America First policy, which signals a new narrow understanding of U.S. national interests and an anxious desire to disengage the United States from its role of global policeman and to break free from the constraints imposed by multilateralism.
The French Response
The French approach, initiated by Macron, is shaped by this context. The 2017 Strategic Review of Defense and National Security underlines early on the questioning of multilateralism, the climate of growing uncertainty that “pushes certain countries to doubt their allies,” and the “choice of a posture openly favoring the balance of power” by certain great powers. It also highlights the Sino-American rivalry and the risks posed to regional stability by the assertion of Chinese power, which threatens French interests. These themes, and in particular the warning to China against any hegemonic temptation, were taken up and developed in 2018 in a series of speeches by the French president in Xian, China, and New Delhi, India.
When Macron first outlined France’s Indo-Pacific strategy during his speech at Garden Island, he focused on the need to reconcile three imperatives: limiting the harms to French interests posed by the rise of China, preserving the Franco-American relationship beyond the vicissitudes of the occupant of the White House, and extricating France as much as possible from the rivalry between Beijing and Washington. To this final end, he called for the creation of a Canberra-Delhi-Paris axis of cooperation.
While Macron might not oppose the Belt and Road Initiative, he often underscores the need to be wary of China. All the official documents and speeches on strategy published or delivered since his presidential inauguration have warned against the hegemonic will of Beijing. They have also called for building partnerships between allies to restore a relative “level playing field” in the competition with Beijing and have reaffirmed the strength of France’s historical, political, and strategic ties with Washington. It is in this spirit that Macron positioned France as a “balancing power” at the conference of French ambassadors in September 2019.
Unsurprisingly, France’s goals for the Indo-Pacific largely overlap with those of its partners and allies. The goals include maintaining freedom of navigation on the sea and in the air, which France intends to uphold through dialogue and discussion and, if necessary, through its armed forces, whether alone or in partnership. They also include safety and security, particularly in regards to terrorism, nuclear proliferation, trafficking of all kinds, and attacks on sovereignty.
However, the insistence on an additional objective—protecting the environment—partially distinguishes the French approach from those of its partners. France does not just emphasize the importance of issues like climate change and biodiversity out of moral conviction and the desire to capitalize on the success of the Paris Agreement, but also out of strategic interest: threats to environmental security affect all other dimensions of security by redrawing maps, displacing populations, creating new hotbeds of tension, and affecting critical infrastructure.5 Moreover, while China’s growing military capabilities may pose a threat to French interests in the long term, issues like Beijing’s designs to appropriate resources like fisheries pose an even more immediate danger.
France is not entirely alone in having integrated the environmental dimension into its Indo-Pacific strategy. For example, through the Pacific Environmental Security Forum, the United States signals the importance of the issue for the Pacific Islands and, despite the administration’s rhetoric, understands the strategic and political consequences of climate change. France is nevertheless the only state to have raised the environmental dimension to such a level of priority.
Finally, multilateralism, whether through tri- or multilateral partnerships or international forums, is at the very heart of France’s understanding of the Indo-Pacific concept. It is both an objective—the need to preserve the existing international order of which multilateralism is the foundation—and a means to achieve the objective. For France, multilateralism is a way to ease growing polarization in the region and to remedy power asymmetries between big and small powers—allowing the latter to reclaim their autonomous decisionmaking.
The Role of French Overseas Territories
France considers itself an Indo-Pacific resident power. In addition to sharing borders with five independent states in the Indian Ocean and twelve in the Pacific Ocean,6 the country administers overseas territories and has large numbers of French citizens living in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, its understanding of the region’s geographic scope is primarily rooted in these territories, which include New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and Clipperton Island—as well as Reunion Island, Mayotte, and the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. For France, they collectively make up the second most important exclusive economic zone in the world.
It is no surprise, then, that Macron chose to introduce the new Indo-Pacific doctrine to leaders of the Pacific Community in a speech in New Caledonia shortly after his speech at Garden Island.7 In fact, through its overseas holdings, France sees itself as an island state in the Indo-Pacific. This lends credibility to its international commitments in the region: the state’s duty to protect its citizens and the sovereignty of its territories wherever they may be means that the overseas territories are to some extent the guarantors of the legitimacy of the French government.
Therefore, France’s overseas territories put the Indo-Pacific in the center of the country’s national strategic thinking and give France a prominent voice in the great debate over the region. Because the Indo-Pacific is now a potential confrontation zone, France’s substantial capacity to influence the strategic, political, and economic evolution of the region makes its presence there desirable in the eyes of many partner states. The evolution of India’s and Australia’s positions on French authority in the Indian and Pacific Oceans over the past ten years is striking in this regard; France’s presence is now accepted rather than just tolerated, and each power views the state as a major strategic partner.
These partnerships remain fragile, however, most notably because France’s overseas territories could seek to separate themselves from the metropolis. French sovereignty is already being contested in New Caledonia and to a lesser extent in French Polynesia. Meanwhile, Comoros lays claim to Mayotte, with the support of South Africa, China, and Russia; and Mauritius and Madagascar have contested French sovereignty over, respectively, Tromelin Island and the Scattered Islands (both part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands). The loss of all or part of these territories would inevitably lead to a loss of France’s influence in the eyes of its allies and partners.
Therefore, as French Ambassador Christian Lechervy has stated, it is essential for France to help its overseas territories become more integrated into their regional environment; the concept of the Indo-Pacific is based on a willingness “to connect [these] spaces to their environment, and to ensure sustainable growth, respectful of the environment and of people.”8
Successful integration would undeniably make these territories useful instruments of cultural, economic, and military influence and turn them into major assets for the French Indo-Pacific strategy. But this integration requires France’s membership in international organizations focused on the region, which is not without difficulties. France is a party to various Pacific fora and is a founding member of the Indian Ocean Commission, an intergovernmental agency that brings together five Indian Ocean island states.9 But, although a candidate, it is still not a member of the broad Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). An intergovernmental organization created in 1997 on the initiative of South Africa and India, the IORA brings together twenty-two member states, representative of all the Indian Ocean’s shores, as well as nine dialogue partners.10
A Narrow Path
France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is not the result of mere political opportunism. It reflects a realization of the potential dangers that China’s rise and the Sino-American rivalry pose to France’s interests, influence, and status—as well as a desire to prevent possible marginalization given the supposed shift in gravity toward Asia. The strategy will only be successful, however, if France’s overseas territories redefine their relations with the metropolis to become vectors of political, diplomatic, military, economic, and cultural influence.
Finally, France cannot act alone—it will need to gain the support of other European states, who may be reluctant partners unless France can both reassure them of its benign intentions and remind them of the need to protect their own interests in the region. It will also need to help redefine Europe’s relations with the United States. Walking along a narrow path, Europe must share more of the burden in security matters but never fall into the trap of a mechanical alignment with Washington.
1 Rory Medcalf, “The Indo-Pacific With Chinese Characteristics,” Politique Etrangère, no. 3 (Fall 2019): 49–61, https://www.cairn-int.info/abstract-E_PE_193_0049--the-indo-pacific-with-chinese.htm#.
2 “Quelle stratégie pour la France dans l’Indopacifique” [What strategy for France in the Indo-Pacific], interview with Alice Guitton, Director General of International Relations and Strategy (DGRIS), Ministry of the Armed Forces, Diplomatie, no. 53 (October–November 2019): 24–28.
3 Medcalf, “The Indo-Pacific With Chinese Characteristics.”
4 Jean-Loup Samaan, “La stratégie Indopacifique de l’administration Trump: une difficile émergence” [The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: A difficult emergence], Politique Etrangère, no. 3 (Fall 2019) : 37–48, https://www.cairn.info/article.php?ID_ARTICLE=PE_193_0037.
5 Manh Largemain, “L’anticipation sécuritaire environnementale en Indo-Pacifique: un enjeu pour la défense française” [Environmental anticipation in the Indo-Pacific: a challenge for French national security], Diplomatie, no. 53 (October–November 2019): 29–30.
6 Christian Lechervy, “La place des Outre-mer océaniens dans la politique Indo-Pacifique de la France” [The place of oceanic overseas territories in France’s Indo-Pacific policy], Revue Défense Nationale, no. 823 (October 2019): 18–24, https://www.cairn.info/revue-defense-nationale-2019-8-page-18.htm.
7 Christian Lechervy, “La France et le concept d’Indo-Pacifique” [France and the concept of the Indo-Pacific], Politique Etrangère, no. 3 (Fall 2019): 23–35, https://www.cairn.info/revue-politique-etrangere-2019-3-page-23.htm.
8 Ibid, 26.
9 France is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, the Pacific Islands Development Forum, the Pacific Regional Environment Program, and the South Pacific Community. The Indian Ocean Commission’s island states include Comoros, France (through Reunion), Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles.
10 The member states include Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The dialogue partners include China, Egypt, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.