Every government struggles with the Covid-19 crisis, with one eye to the post-coronavirus world. In this context, it might be necessary to look at French perceptions about Australia and their prospects, and needs, for better cooperation after the crisis.
France increasingly sees Australia as a key strategic partner in the Indian Ocean.
The French perspective on Australia’s role in the Indian Ocean is in many ways reflected in the May 2018 vision statement regarding Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull and French President Emmanuel Macron, made during Macron’s visit to Australia. There leaders commit to:
- Strengthen the architecture of the Indian Ocean region and increase regional collaboration on mutual security and other challenges.
- Collaborate closely and with like-minded partners to improve regional maritime security.
- Involve other strategic partners more broadly in growing cooperation between France and Australia, including through trilateral and high-level dialogue.
These three points underline the convergence of their interests and define their ambitions and approaches. The Indian Ocean region’s security architecture remains to be built and France expects partnerships with Australia to achieve this goal.
Judging from Paris, Australia’s strategic interests are still dominated by the function of its role in the Pacific Ocean. Its military presence in the Indian Ocean has long been limited to the northeast, with a main focus on the stability of Southeast Asia and denial of access to Australia. Until recently, Australian military infrastructure on the Coco islands was basically defensive in nature.
The Covid-19 crisis made cooperation more important. Australia and France are now faced with a war of influence launched by China, while the management of the pandemic itself has become a new theater of US-Chinese competition.
Despite best efforts, Australia’s weak military presence in the Indian Ocean has not yet permitted it to build the Indian Ocean Circle Association (IORA) into an effective regional organization. Limited military, political, economic and institutional capacity in most of the Indian Ocean coastal countries, as well as political fragmentation in the region, also did not help – nor did they have easy relations with some of the major regional actors, especially India.
However, times have changed. Conditions to strengthen the regional security architecture are not always easier, but the need for it has increased rapidly, while new convergences have emerged as a result of unrestricted Chinese policies.
Australia, France and other regional actors are now reassessing their position in the Indian Ocean for four main reasons.
First, the depth of Chinese encroachment in the Indian Ocean can no longer be ignored, because it creates vulnerability for every coastal country in the region.
Second, China’s interference in the internal affairs of coastal countries also heightens suspicion about its short and medium term intentions. Disturbances in Australia’s domestic affairs, in particular, have changed its traditional equality between security and prosperity. This old dilemma still exists, but the terms have evolved. Prosperity can no longer be contemplated in isolation from threats to state sovereignty.
Third, the range of potential threats has also increased to include environmental threats and consequently changing coalition development requirements in the Indian Ocean. This allows a more inclusive coalition that is less confrontational, which also provides options with real strategic value.
Fourth, the uncertainty surrounding US commitments to regional security outside the narrowly defined US interests makes it increasingly important for all middle Indian Ocean powers to find ways to diversify their choices. They must also redefine the terms of their involvement with China and the US.
The intensification of Chinese-US competition is an additional obstacle, after turning each Indian Ocean country into a potential prize in the zero-sum game. It does not change the nature of regional equality but tends to exacerbate existing tensions.
In this context, a January 2019 speech by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne to the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi, where he announced greater Australian involvement in the region, did not escape attention in Paris. This follows the restoration of Australia’s relations with regional countries, including India, which were previously suspicious of Australia’s economic dependence on China. Such suspicion exists despite the convergence of interests and approaches, including a shared desire not to antagonize China unnecessarily. India and Australia have worked together in a separate trilateral format with Indonesia and Japan.
The Indian Ocean has thus witnessed the emergence of a series of collaborative networks that are now helping to tighten control over the Indian Ocean.
This development was seen positively by France, which welcomed Australia’s greater presence and activism in the Indian Ocean. Paris believes it will mark the start of new regional cooperation aimed at preventing anyone from trying to establish a monopoly over the control of Indian Ocean resources (minerals, energy, marine, etc.) or hegemony through access to military facilities.
The prospect of trilateral cooperation between Australia, India and France – which was a proposal that was not very popular by the President of France – and, with that, the creation of a shaft that will become the main pillar of the Indian Ocean security architecture, is a real possibility.
The Covid-19 crisis made cooperation more important. Australia and France are now faced with a war of influence launched by China, while the management of the pandemic itself has become a new theater of US-Chinese competition. In this context it makes sense to increase scientific cooperation between the two countries in medical and environmental matters and expand it throughout the region.
In the Indian Ocean, France sees Australia as the same-minded country and one of the few regional countries that is able to contribute substantially to regional stability. Australia is also seen in Paris as a country that sees stability through the same prism and effective multilateralism as a way to ensure that. France does not neglect Australia’s central role in advancing regional institutions and intends to partner with it to make it more effective in the future.
This work is part of a two-year project carried out by the National Security College in the Indian Ocean, with support from the Department of Defense.
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