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Beach, Ocean, Storm

French fury can’t be left to unwind joint Indo-Pacific work

By Anthony Bergin

France has recalled its ambassadors to the us and australia (but not the uk). It’s angry over the nuclear submarine deal between the US, Australia and Britain. It’s happened before. France withdrew its ambassador here in 1995 after Australia barred a french company from competing for a major defence contract to protest France’s decision to resume nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Apart from the economic benefits, Paris understood the submarines were all about a long-term strategic partnership. It would appear that not a lot of effort went into softening the blow for paris after we changed our mind on the french boats.

France is a key Indo-Pacific player with growing strategic partnerships with Australia, India, Singapore and Japan. It has 7000 defence personnel stationed throughout the indo-pacific: 4100 in the indian ocean and 2900 in the pacific.

These forces protect their french territories and offshore zones, as well as broader roles in disaster response and counter-terrorism. France participates in many multilateral and bilateral military exercises through the region. It trains indo-pacific armed forces for peacekeeping.

Australia, France and New Zealand co-ordinate civil and military assistance for pacific island countries affected by natural disasters. France plays an important role in the South Pacific defence ministers meeting.

France supports the island countries with surveillance of their offshore zones, as well as patrolling the high seas. They co-ordinate their surveillance efforts with Australia, the us and New Zealand. In the future there’s every likelihood we’ll see those efforts being extended with France conducting joint patrols of the high seas area adjacent to our exclusive economic zone and New Caledonia’s EEZ, and possibly inside other islands’ waters.

France’s role may become stronger if it becomes a party to the multilateral niue treaty subsidiary agreement. This allows for the cross-vesting of enforcement powers between countries, as well as hot pursuits into another country’s EEZ.

In the Coral Sea we’re engage closely with France around protecting the marine environment, working with New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Looking to the Southern Ocean, fisheries enforcement patrols are undertaken by French authorities arranged under a surveillance treaty in the maritime areas adjacent to the French southern and Antarctic territories (Kerguelen and Crozet Islands) and heard island and McDonald Islands. Our fisheries, customs and border protection officers are embarked on french vessels to enforce Australian law in our jurisdiction.

France is our greatest political and logistics ally in Antarctica. We’re both claimant states and share a similar approach to the norms of the Antarctic treaty system. The French navy polar patrol vessel, L’astrolabe, deploys from Hobart in the summer season (we help on covid protocols to get the crew through quarantine), to supply France’s Dumont D’urville and Concordia scientific stations. L’astrolabe can be deployed to support our research station on Macquarie island. Our new icebreaker will help support resupply to Dumont D’urville.

Both states have championed the ban on mining in Antarctica, conserving its marine living resources and protecting the ecosystem. Both countries are focused on the renewed interest by China in Antarctica and the way in which it’s investing substantially in polar science, logistics and infrastructure.

In the Indian Ocean, France is deepening its strategic partnership with india. Australia has had senior officials dialogue with France and India on Indo-Pacific security. It met for the first time this year at ministerial level. A leaders summit had been planned. The three countries are working together in helping to build regional arrangements for better managing security in the indian ocean.

France plays an important role in the Indian Ocean rim association, as well as the Indian Ocean naval symposium, focused on maritime co-operation. Despite the distances between Australian and French territories in the Indian Ocean, there’s substantial opportunities for bilateral co-operation in the eastern part of the ocean. One way is through greater co-operation among regional coastguard agencies. There’s considerable scope in the eastern Indian Ocean for developing framework disaster management arrangements between Australia and France and other key states.

In other words, Australia and France have overlapping interests and a growing partnership on issues to our east, south and west – something that isn’t true of many our partners. France pushed hard for several years for a European strategy for the Indo-Pacific. The EU released its plan for the Indo-Pacific last week.

We should continue to capitalise on this relationship and do everything possible to repair any damage caused by the nuclear submarine decision. Like the spurned lover, france will want to let off some steam. But France will remain a strategic player in the Indo-Pacific. None of the security challenges both countries face in the region will fade away. We need to work together to meet them.

Originally published by: on 23 Sep 2021