How Franco-Australian Cooperation Can Help Stabilize the Indo-Pacific
Last November, a Royal Australian Navy base near Perth was the port of call for an unusual patrol composed of two French ships, the nuclear-powered attack submarine Emeraude and the support and assistance vessel Seine. The French patrol trained with the Australian navy before sailing to the South China Sea, where it served as part of France’s efforts to challenge China’s sweeping maritime claims in the region. In addition to serving as another example of France’s ambition to be a real player in the Indo-Pacific, this long-distance and long-duration deployment demonstrated the growing importance of French-Australian cooperation.
Paris and Canberra have long shared common values and have fought together on many occasions. But the French-Australian partnership has grown much closer in recent years, as converging strategic visions for the Indo-Pacific drive greater defense and diplomatic cooperation. Deepening Franco-Australian cooperation is excellent news for Washington, which should now seize the opportunity to work more closely with both countries.
Becoming Better Neighbors
Few people know that France and Australia are neighbors. Through its overseas territories, France is an “island state” in the Indo-Pacific. French New Caledonia shares a maritime border with Australia in the Southern Ocean and in the Coral Sea. Its capital, Nouméa, is roughly 750 miles from Brisbane and 11,000 miles from Paris. Nonetheless, this geographical proximity initially led to distrust between the two neighbors. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Canberra perceived France as an outside colonial power with little legitimacy in the Pacific. This deep-rooted suspicion was further accentuated by French atmospheric nuclear tests carried out in Polynesia in the 1960s and 1970s. Tensions over New Caledonia’s aspiration for independence in the 1980s also fueled lingering doubts in Canberra about France’s legitimacy and longevity in the Pacific.
Despite these strains, France and Australia have long been bound by shared values and security interests, which led both countries to fight together during the World War I and II. From 1914 to 1918, more than 315,000 Australian soldiers volunteered to fight on French soil, a commitment that was celebrated in 2016 when a contingent of the Australian army led the Bastille Day parade in Paris. Both countries also share an operational culture that prioritizes expeditionary forces, which has facilitated joint involvement in locations including Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, the Gulf of Aden, and, more recently, Iraq and Syria.
More importantly, Australian suspicion toward France progressively faded as Paris worked to play a more constructive role in the Pacific during the 1990s. In 1996, France signed the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, thus ending its controversial nuclear tests in French Polynesia. After years of unrest, the French government also endorsed an autonomy process for New Caledonia with the signing of the Nouméa Accord in 1998. These decisions helped to relax relations with Canberra, which in 2016 backed the admission of two French overseas territories, New Caledonia and Polynesia, into the Pacific Islands Forum.
A Strategic Alignment
Building on this normalization, Paris and Canberra have pursued a strategic rapprochement in recent years. Both countries successively embraced the Indo-Pacific concept — Australia with its 2013 national security strategy and France with its 2018 Indo-Pacific strategy. By endorsing this strategic construct, Australia and France both recognized the need to adopt a holistic vision of the region. Moreover, France and Australia share the same clear-headed approach in the Indo-Pacific — they seek to promote a rules-based order that protects sovereignty, fosters trade, and preserves peace. French and Australian strategic documents, including recent updates released by Australia in 2020 and France in 2021, make this clear: Both countries are deeply concerned by the mounting competition across the region and by the assertive attitude of China. As a result, both fear that open military confrontation can no longer be ruled out, particularly in the absence of a credible regional security architecture.
In trying to balance China, France and Australia also recognize the need to avoid an overly aggressive posture that could prompt unnecessary escalation or hamper potential cooperation with Beijing. France has insisted that it sees China as partner in addition to a systemic rival and a competitor. Australia, in turn, has encouraged the United States and China to ensure that their bilateral tensions do “not fuel strategic rivalry or damage the multilateral trading system.” Yet this desire for balance between competition and engagement is gradually shifting, especially in Canberra, as Beijing adopts an increasingly aggressive diplomatic posture toward both Australia and France.
In light of this strategic convergence, Paris and Canberra have naturally come to see each other as partners. Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper mentions France as one of Australia’s partner countries along with Japan, New Zealand, and the United States, highlighting their “longstanding and close defense relationship” as well as their “shared commitment to addressing global security challenges.” Similarly, the 2019 French Defence Strategy in the Indo-Pacific sees “security and defense cooperation with Australia” as “the foundation of our bilateral relationship in the Indo-Pacific” and a key contribution to “strategic stability in Asia.”
French-Australian relations reached a new level when President Emmanuel Macron visited Australia in 2018. In a speech given at the Garden Island military base in Sydney, the president described France as an “Indo-Pacific power” for the first time in the country’s history. His Australian counterpart, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, welcomed this ambition by outlining that France’s “significant presence in the region can only bring benefits to Australia.” Building on this new political momentum, France and Australia signed a “joint statement of enhanced strategic partnership” in 2017. Compared to the previous strategic partnership adopted in 2012, this new joint statement stands out for its ambition, with 13 areas for collaboration supported by 102 initiatives.
Solid Defense Partners
Defense is a key feature of this renewed partnership. Both countries already concluded a defense cooperation and status of forces agreement in 2009, which serves as a robust basis for bilateral military activities. Paris and Canberra went a step further in recent years, adopting an agreement on intelligence sharing in 2017 and one on logistics support in 2018. Sharing classified information will be critical for French-Australian defense cooperation, notably the submarine program discussed below. The agreement on logistics support is no less important, as it grants Australian forces regular access to French Pacific military bases and vice versa.
Drawing on this framework, operational cooperation between the French and Australian armed forces has been growing rapidly. The two navies regularly train together for scenarios ranging from rescue operations to high-intensity conflict. The French-led exercise Croix du Sud, held every two years, is the largest humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise in the South Pacific, involving the navies of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United States. The French and Australian navies have also increased their cooperation to disrupt illegal maritime activity across the Pacific, from piracy to illegal fishing. And, though lower-profile, there is also increasing cooperation between the two countries’ armies — France has forces based in New Caledonia — and their air forces.
The most visible sign of this new defense cooperation is undoubtedly Canberra’s 2016 decision to sign a $35 billion contract with France’s Naval Group to develop 12 attack-class submarines in Australia. This contract is far more than a simple commercial venture, as submarines are seen as a vital element of Australian defense strategy. France is expected to help Australia create a sovereign industry for submarine sustainment, facilitated by a high level of technology transfer. This project will link the two countries for more than 50 years and should create new opportunities for collaboration in weapons, communications, and intelligence. By 2030, there will be 300 submarines operating across the Indo-Pacific, half of the world’s submarines. A quarter of them will likely be Chinese, mainly used for anti-surface warfare and anti-access and area denial in the South China Sea. Developing such high-end military assets is therefore essential if the Australian navy hopes to maintain a sustained forward presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Admittedly, the project is facing considerable public scrutiny in Australia given its scale, complexity, and cost. Adverse media reports regularly question the program’s workshare and cost estimates, slowly turning the project into a point of friction. But this should not be exaggerated. Such scrutiny is understandable given what’s at stake for Australia, and was also directed at the country’s previous generation of submarines. Indeed, former French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian compared the project to a “50-year marriage” — despite the ups and downs, it still signals a considerable commitment from both Paris and Canberra.
Through their armament cooperation, enhanced information-sharing, and joint maritime exercises, Paris and Canberra have helped to level the playing field in the West’s competition with Beijing. Closer and better-coordinated cooperation with Washington could maximize these benefits.
In the military realm, Washington is already doing this. The cooperation between the French, Australian, and U.S. navies has been consistently strong, as witnessed in May 2019 by La Perouse, a multinational exercise involving the French carrier strike group Charles de Gaulle alongside Japanese, American, and Australian warships. French-Australian armament cooperation is also intertwined with the U.S. defense industry, as illustrated by the selection of Lockheed Martin Australia as the combat system integrator for the future Australian submarine. All three partners should now seek to further expand naval cooperation through port calls, exercises, information-sharing, or even combined contingency planning.
In the diplomatic realm, better coordination with Washington would also help France and Australia to better counter China. So far, both Paris and Canberra have preferred to distance themselves from the Sino-American rivalry, which they perceive as contributing to the polarization and instability of the region. Both countries are active in several existing forums, such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the South Pacific Defense Ministers’ Meeting, which promote enhanced regional cooperation on a wide range of issues from maritime security to sustainable development. They are also creating new ones: In September 2020 Macron’s “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” held its first trilateral dialogue, followed by a second meeting last February. France and Australia see such middle-power coalitions as a way to effectively readjust the regional balance of power and as a complement to bilateral ties with Washington. Ideally, such coalitions help to diffuse tensions between Washington and Beijing while making clear to China that its assertive behavior is unacceptable not only for the United States but also for the international community at large.
Without losing the benefits of this approach, Paris and Canberra should also strengthen forums that involve Washington. One option would be the Pacific Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group, or “Pacific Quad,” which includes France, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand. This group is well-suited to practical cooperation on specific challenges such as illegal maritime activities, disaster relief, and increasing Chinese military presence. Another option would be the “Quad plus” format used in the French-led La Perouse exercise that, in addition to France, Australia, and the United States, includes Japan and India. This more inclusive format brings a wider geographical scope, encompassing both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, while creating a bigger international coalition to counter China’s destabilizing regional behavior.
A new window of opportunity is now opening as American, French, and Australian approaches to the Indo-Pacific are gradually converging. On the one hand, the Biden administration is advocating for a more balanced posture toward China, one that combines competition and collaboration in a manner resembling the French and Australian strategies. On the other hand, China has flexed its muscles amid the pandemic, forcing Paris and Canberra to adopt a tougher stance toward Beijing. Harnessing the full potential of this renewed strategic alignment will be pivotal to ensuring a stable, law-based, and multipolar order in the Indo-Pacific.
Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy head of the Strategic Affairs and Cybersecurity Division in the French foreign service. The views expressed here are solely his own. You can find him on Twitter @morcos_pierre.