France’s strategic interests in the Pacific are anything but ephemeral. Hence, Paris keeps boosting its geopolitical projection in that region, as witnessed by its efforts to strengthen further an already sound strategic partnership with Australia. Nonetheless, at least in its current shape, the French military presence in the maritime domain stretching from the Strait of Malacca to the Southern Pacific could be questioned next year, as a new leadership will take the reins at home amid political and economic uncertainties.
At any rate, if that proves to be the case, Paris can count on the Chinese lifeline, no matter how contradictory it may be.
The French-Aussie cooperation
On December 7, France signed with Australia an agreement to share classified information. The treaty aims to underpin Canberra’s Future Submarine Program and, in particular, includes provisions for contractors involved with it.
In April, France’s state-owned shipbuilder DCNS won a multi-billion contract for the design and construction of 12 Shortfin Barracuda submarines, which will be part of the Royal Australian Navy’s next generation fleet.
The information-sharing deal between the two countries is probably thought to prevent the disclosure of submarines’ sensitive details. It is worth noting that Paris was forced into an embarrassing position last August, when The Australian revealed the leak of secret data about the combat capabilities of Scorpene-class vessels that DCNS was building for the Indian navy.
To a large extent, the recent arrangement takes the French-Australian security cooperation to new heights, at a time when Canberra views Paris’ commitment to the Pacific as a source of stability, notably for the French contribution to maritime surveillance in the area.
France is a Pacific actor. The overseas dependencies of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna make it the country with the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) after the United States; 7 million square kilometers of its EEZ – out of a total of 11 million worldwide – are indeed located in the Pacific Ocean. 500,000 French citizens live in these territories, and 130,000 French expatriates reside in Asian-Pacific countries.
Paris has a considerable military force in the southern Pacific. 2,800 troops are stationed between New Caledonia and French Polynesia. After sending a further naval vessel to New Caledonia in July, now the French Pacific fleet maintains 4 patrol vessels, 2 surveillance frigates, 2 multi-mission ships, 5 maritime surveillance aircraft, besides some tactical transport aircrafts and helicopters. This defense apparatus is largely devoted to protecting French citizens and territories and employed in surveillance missions and EEZ protection.
France is the one European Union (EU) nation with a Pacific-wide military potential. For example, its navy ships routinely sail through the South China Sea. In this respect, last summer, Paris stressed that it would be ready to lead EU’s South China Sea patrols to bolster freedom of navigation in the region – a proposal that has so far had no follow-up within the European bloc. Freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the area were both reiterated by French President Francois Hollande during a visit to Vietnam in September.
Possible disengagement and arm sales
On a trip to New Caledonia in 2014, Hollande pointed out that his country would remain a Pacific power in the years to come. The process of decolonization still underway in South Pacific will test this assertion, with New Caledonia – one of the world’s largest producers of nickel metal – that is expected to hold a referendum on self-determination in 2018.
More importantly, as France’s economy is still in a mess, it is to see whether Paris will raise the funds needed to advance a proactive Pacific policy down the line. In the country’s 2107 presidential campaign, the prospective allocation of limited fiscal resources for military operations halfway around the world could be a hot topic.
In case of strategic disengagement in the Pacific, France holds a trump card to secure some sort of regional footprint there – arm sales. Paris is the world’s fourth-largest armaments exporter, and Asia-Pacific accounts for a relevant proportion of French sales in this sector; in the 2010-2015 period, in fact, France sold to Asian-Pacific nations US$2.1 billion in defence equipment, which amounts to 24 percent of its total weapon sales, according to data from the French defense procurement office (DGA) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Paradoxically, China was Paris’ best client in this stint, buying French arms worth US$1.2 billion. Like other European countries, France manages to find loopholes in the EU arms embargo on Beijing, which Brussels imposed in the aftermath of the crackdown of Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and systematically provides the Chinese dragon with dual-use items and sub-systems.
Thus, one way or the other, French arms will continue to circulate across the Pacific; they will be definitely wielded by Chinese soldiers and, perhaps, by French troops as well.
Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributing writer to the South China Morning Post and the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. In the past, his articles have also appeared in The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review, The Jerusalem Post and the EUobserver, among others. He has written for Asia Times since 2011.