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Wise to bolster our regional French connection

By Anthony Bergin and David Brewster

It was revealed last week that Australia and the US are urging France to boost its influence as a Pacific power to act as a counterbalance to China’s ambitions. 

“President Macron is one of an ever-growing list of leaders who have taken a keen interest in our Pacific step-up program because, like Australia, France wants to be closely engaged with the next chapter for the region,” Scott Morrison said.

The Indo-Pacific is home to 1.5 million French people and there are 8000 French soldiers permanently located throughout it: 4500 in the Indian Ocean, 2800 in the Pacific Ocean and 700 sailors on deployment.

Working with France in the Pacific on security and development is a constructive step. Like-minded democratic states should be co-operating in a region where there’s concern that China might establish a strategic foothold from which it might threaten us.

France is committed to not only its own territory but the wider South Pacific. Three years ago New Caledonia and French Polynesia were admitted to the region’s main political grouping, the Pacific Islands Forum.

France contributes to the Pacific Islands through aid, disaster relief and search-and-rescue operations. It supports the island countries with maritime surveillance of their offshore estates, as well as patrolling the high seas.

Australia could extend those efforts by working with France to conduct joint patrols of the high-seas area adjacent to our offshore zone and New Caledonia’s exclusive economic zone. We could encourage France to become a party to a regional agreement that allows for the cross-vesting of enforcement powers between countries, as well as hot pursuits into another country’s EEZ.

But apart from looking east to co-operate with France, we should also be looking south and west. France and Australia have adjacent territory in Antarctica: France’s Adelie Land bisects the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Both nations possess neighbouring island territories in the sub-Antarctic region — for France, the Kerguelen and Crozet Islands, and for Australia, Heard Island and McDonald Islands. Both countries assert their rights to the maritime zones around their territories, including sections of the Kerguelen Plateau.

In the Southern Ocean, fisheries enforcement patrols are undertaken by French authorities in the maritime areas adjacent to the French and Australian territories. Australia’s fisheries and border force officers embarked on French vessels are able to enforce Australian law in Australia’s jurisdiction.

The two countries also should work to pool resources with a view to dominating eastern Antarctic science and logistics. Australia is getting a new icebreaker next year that will help us support resupply to the French base at Dumont d’Urville. Australia and France should jointly examine the management implications of climate change in the Antarctic region, looking at future Antarctic infrastructure, logistics, environmental management, the terrestrial environment, the marine environment and resources.

In the Indian Ocean most of France’s capabilities are in the west, including a large military base at Djibouti and its overseas territories of Mayotte and La Reunion. Just as Australia is the traditional power among many Pacific Islands, France is the leading power among many islands in the Indian Ocean.

Australia also has important strategic interests in the western Indian Ocean, including helping to manage the threats of piracy, terrorism and smuggling, and limiting their spread towards the Australian continent. This is why our navy has been deployed in that part of the world for almost three decades. But Australia’s defence and diplomatic resources are limited and we also have growing priorities elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. The reality is that we simply can’t be everywhere. This means that we will need to find innovative ways of projecting Australia’s influence across the region.

A close Australia-France Indo-Pacific partnership may provide a low-cost way for the two countries to enhance their diplomatic and political leverage and military access in both the Indian and Pacific oceans. This would include giving Australia the opportunity to plug into France’s longstanding diplomatic, political and security links in the western Indian Ocean. Just as France has joined the Pacific Islands Forum, we might, for example, think about joining the Indian Ocean Commission, a grouping of Indian Ocean island states, based on our nearby island territories.

Strategic competition is increasing right across the Indo-Pacific. Much of the focus has been on competition among the big powers such as the US, China and, increasingly, India. But the impact of this competition will probably be felt most intensively among the smaller states in the region, particularly the small island states. They could easily become the battlegrounds of major powers in a new cold war. This means that middle powers such as Australia and France need to find ways of stabilising the island states while promoting good governance and sustainable development.

We need to be thinking about deepening co-operation between Australia and France, not only in the Pacific but also in the Indian Ocean, the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

The breadth of these overlapping interests between the two countries is unique and is likely to grow ever more important for us.

Originally published by: The Australian on 05 Jul 2019