Moving On After AUKUS: Working with France in the Indo-Pacific
“We have a reason to ask ourselves questions about the strength of the alliance with the U.S. In a real alliance, you talk to each other, you respect each other. This has not been the case here.” These were the words used by Jean-Yves Le Drian, then the French minister of foreign affairs, when he justified France’s decision to call back its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra for consultations after the conclusion of the “AUKUS” agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The timing of the announcement had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing the just-released E.U. Indo-Pacific strategy, which was the result of many months of continuous lobbying by France. Furthermore, the secretive way in which the agreement was negotiated confirmed the worst fears for some in Paris about Washington and London, as well as how France’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific could be realized in the context of such blatant deception from Canberra.
While President Macron was certainly angered by the agreement, it was less of an embarrassment for him than for Le Drian, who had been working on France’s submarine deal with Australia since he was minister of defense under President Hollande. His replacement by Catherine Colonna, a career diplomat and France’s former ambassador to London, as foreign minister, is a clear gesture that Macron is willing to move on pragmatically and turn the page. After all, the Indo-Pacific remains ranked highly among Macron’s foreign policy priorities, and this now includes finding a way to work with AUKUS members. For example, in May, French and Australian officials committed to rebuilding the bilateral relationship, as Canberra indicated it would compensate France’s Naval Group for the lost revenue in the submarine contract. And France plans to deploy an aircraft carrier to the region by 2025, which is supposed to conduct operations with the U.S. Navy.
More Than Submarines
The angry reaction from Paris surprised Washington, and indeed many analysts described the recall of the French ambassador from Washington — the first time this has happened — as a dramatic and unnecessary step. The public discussion of AUKUS focused primarily on France losing a large submarine contract, however, AUKUS is about much more than submarines and the provision of nuclear technology. It is the basis of a regional security compact that excludes France, which had sought to realize its Indo-Pacific strategy via bilateral ties with Australia and India. Beyond submarines, AUKUS involves cooperation on emerging technologies and expanded information-sharing. In many ways, these aspects — and less the nuclear cooperation — underline why the French view AUKUS as a missed opportunity for closer cooperation. And this is not just because France views itself as a European leader on technologies such as quantum computing and a future leader in AI.
Paris has considerable holdings in the Indo-Pacific, where over 1.5 million French citizens live. Ninety-three percent of France’s exclusive economic zone is in the Indo-Pacific, and 1.65 million French citizens live in French overseas territories. Furthermore, France has deployed around 8000 military personnel to the region, and more than 7000 French companies have branches in the region.
It is therefore not surprising that France has also been the most active country within Europe to push for stronger European engagement in the Indo-Pacific. In the context of the European Union, Paris has intensively lobbied Brussels to endorse a coordinated approach to the region. This has resulted in the adoption of the bloc’s strategy in the region, a change that received little attention, as it was overshadowed by the announcement of AUKUS. E.U. policy in the Indo-Pacific was also supposed to be one of the priorities of the French presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first semester of 2022.
Interests — but not necessarily preferred approaches — of the AUKUS members and France largely converge in the Indo-Pacific, highlighting the need for economic cooperation, security, and strategic competition, as well as multilateralism and the rules-based order. Cooperation with France in the Indo-Pacific is an indispensable step for the AUKUS countries to achieve their objectives, given that France has demonstrated its commitment to the region. Undoubtedly, France’s perception of itself as a “balancing power” — the idea that it can cooperate with partners and also still engage with those partners’ adversaries — frustrates Washington. Likewise, AUKUS has damaged French trust in the United States and particularly Australia, with whom France has downgraded its relationship status. Although France has recently signaled there might be a thaw in its frosty relationship with Australia, hurdles will continue to exist as French officials ponder how to implement French policy in Asia without its now-former closest — and most like-minded — Indo-Pacific partner.
Nearly a year after the AUKUS debacle and almost six months after the French presidential elections, it is now time to move on for the AUKUS countries. AUKUS partners should prioritize recognizing the French role in the region through concrete offers for cooperation — and in this regard, three steps appear particularly useful.
There is space to include France in the non-nuclear aspects of AUKUS. After all, France is noted as among the top countries in research on emerging technologies, particularly quantum computing. Although French researchers already contribute to international technology efforts, inclusion in AUKUS could allow French researchers to share information specifically identified as key gaps in technology among AUKUS participants. Similarly, on space cooperation — another identified AUKUS area of collaboration — France could bring the power of the European Union’s own space agency to burden-share with AUKUS participants, to compete with China’s growing space capabilities. Indeed, France has been lobbying E.U. member states for more interest in outer space as a strategic domain: the topic was a priority of the French presidency of the Council of the European Union, and the ambition to develop an E.U. space strategy has been included in the bloc’s Strategic Compass.
View Trans-European-Pacific Partnerships as a Strength
Washington, London, and Canberra should consider expanding the compact, or at least elements of it, with partners in the Indo-Pacific — particularly France and Japan — acknowledging the growing ties between Europe and Asia across diplomatic, military, technological, and economic realms. Recent E.U. engagement with Japan underlines that the European Union is being viewed as an increasingly serious partner in the Indo-Pacific by key Asian partners. Indeed, earlier this year, Japan’s foreign minister specifically praised France’s leadership role in enhancing E.U. engagement in the region. France and Japan’s inclusion in aspects of AUKUS would contribute to greater access to a more diverse set of resources and know-how in one of the top economic and technological powerhouses in Europe and Asia. And perhaps equally important for managing perceptions, their inclusion in the pact could lend it greater credibility as a grouping of like-minded democratic countries that could consist not just of the Anglo-speaking world but also of the Asian and broader European community.
“Five Eyes” Plus?
The AUKUS pact was in part made possible by the fact that the three countries involved already have deep intelligence relationships due to the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. Even were France to be included in some of the non-nuclear aspects of AUKUS, its position outside of this special intelligence alliance would likely limit its involvement. While formally expanding Five Eyes is likely a non-starter for Washington, Canberra, and London, AUKUS could become an opportunity for more robust information sharing with France on a smaller scope and scale — and could very well be viewed as a confidence-building measure with the French.
As relationships thaw in the aftermath of establishing AUKUS, now is an opportune moment to consider ways that France might join the non-nuclear aspects of the framework. With France’s presence in the Indo-Pacific — more than any other European power — the United States could leverage both France’s experience and capabilities to offset China’s growing influence in the region while exploring ways to tap into European and Asian countries’ technological and economic prowess to expand each other’s security and resiliency. As a leading technological power in Europe, France could provide value to the emerging technology aspects of AUKUS, particularly in the quantum, space, and cyber realms. Although there are some practical elements that AUKUS members would have to overcome — language barriers and information sharing among them — these are not insurmountable. There are mostly benefits in including France — the driving force behind the European Union’s growing outreach to Asia — in aspects of AUKUS, with the strongest benefit being a trans-European-Pacific effort to offset China’s malign regional influence, with implications for American, European, and Asian partners alike.
Gesine Weber is a research analyst at the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Ph.D. candidate at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. Her research focuses on European security and defense cooperation, including E.U.-U.K. relations after Brexit and E3 (France, Germany, United Kingdom) cooperation, as well as the E.U.’s role in geopolitics.
Edgar Tam is a non-resident senior fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States and a U.S. defense liaison officer to the United Kingdom. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the U.S. government.
Image: Présidence de la République