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Emmanuel Macron and France's Indo-Pacific strategy

By Julien Buffet | | Updated: 2022-11-28 16:04
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French President Emmanuel Macron [Photo/Agencies]

At a time when old and new tensions are mounting in the Asia-Pacific, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's invitation to Emmanuel Macron for APEC 2022 allows us to discuss the third way strategy proposed by France, which seeks to be part of the security and development of this region of the world.

The Asia-Pacific countries, which are expected to become the future driver of the global economy in the 21st century, have for over 30 years pursued geo-economic integration in close relationship with China. None want to be either victims of conflicts imported by the United States or to go back in 1955 to the non-alignment of Bandung, whereas China's investments are essential to their development. In this region, France plays the role of an insular middle power, with territories from Reunion Island to French Polynesia, facing the same challenges as the countries of Southeast Asia: security of territorial waters, connectivity through digital and physical infrastructure, promotion of multilateralism and creation of global public goods focused on climate and biodiversity. These four challenges have shaped France's global strategy in the Indo-Pacific since 2018.

Since the "stab in the back" of the AUKUS alliance in 2021, France's Indo-Pacific strategy is less focused on the Paris-Dehli-Canberra axis and more on France-India and France-Japan relations, which could lead to new bilateral alliances and a refocusing on Southeast Asia with Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia as priorities. Indonesia is becoming one of the key players in this French strategic shift, whose actions are part of the development of Indonesia's security and transition to a green economy.

Thus, the sale of 42 Rafale fighter jets in January 2022 and the signing in November 2022 of a memorandum between the French Naval Group and the Indonesian PT Pal regarding the construction of the next generation of submarines, reinforce Indonesia's trilateral commitment with Singapore and Malaysia to ensure its patrol missions in the Strait of Malacca. As for the ecological transition, the Indonesian government includes the expertise of the French Development Agency in its official programs but it can also count on the commitment of entrepreneurs in key sectors. Semiconductor manufacturer Deka is providing critical solutions for the solar panel market in support of the country's long-term strategy.

France's complementary approach to the security and development challenges of the Asia-Pacific is no comparison with China's investments and the regional political alliance games led by the United States. However, the French position is stirring up a certain amount of emulation in European countries, from the Netherlands and Germany to the European Union, while at the same time counterbalancing the US strategy of imposing on Southeast Asian countries an alignment with its tech blockade and containment policies against China.

The commitment of France and the EU to support the domestic security and development strategies of these countries without excluding China is a valuable contribution to the development of regional multilateralism and peace in the South China Sea. It may facilitate the adoption of the Code of Conduct between China and the neighboring countries to better coordinate security challenges and economic interests.

The third way advocated by Emmanuel Macron's Indo-Pacific strategy could fit in with the Global Security Initiative and Global Development Initiative, promoted in the speech of Xi Jinping at the 29th APEC Summit, as it opposes the "weaponization" of international trade in the name of the national security of one country. Thus, an effective approach to Southeast Asia's interests inspired by the global strategies of France and China would help avoid a stalemate with the US. Otherwise, the most likely outcome is the polarization of Asia-Pacific governance between China and the United States, which would further increase the instability of regional security, thereby leading to a deficiency in global public goods and ultimately to a crisis in the global economy from which no country will escape unscathed.

The issue of semiconductors, which was discussed on the margins of APEC, is a perfect illustration of this harmful spiral that needs to be broken as soon as possible. This issue is central because it links to common security and ecological transition in Asia-Pacific while having a global impact. Thus, the CHIP 4 alliance (United States, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea), underpinned by a conception of regional issues as a matter of hegemonic stability, increases tensions around Taiwan and its industrial flagship TSMC, but also in South Korea with Samsung just as it slows down the ecological transition in the world. In contrast, the Indo-Pacific vision presented by Emmanuel Macron in his speech to APEC is rooted in a balanced "strategic stability" of these issues, clearly expressing his rejection of the hegemony of one power in favor of a common security guaranteed by international order and sovereignty.

Although this approach to the Indo-Pacific is first analyzed as the direct heritage of Gaullo-Miterrandism defining French strategic autonomy, it more deeply reflects Emmanuel Macron's personal political belief in a moral realism in which the degree of responsibility of states on the ecological transition directly condition their degree of strategic credibility on the international stage. For this reason, the French president emphasises the need for a free and open Asia-Pacific, the only way to implement green regional economic governance that is beneficial to the world.

This position has been welcomed by China, which has consistently remained steadfast in its green diplomacy, and by the Biden administration, which wants to close the climate sceptic hiatus under Trump with his Special Presidential Envoy for climate John Kerry. From this perspective, Emmanuel Macron's state visits to Washington on Dec 1 and 2 and the one planned for Beijing in early 2023 show the French ambition to embody this dynamic of balance and to drag the European Union along with it. In the meantime, the meeting planned between President of the European Council Charles Michel and President Xi Jinping on Dec 1 in Beijing should make it possible to engage in dialogue before the EU locks itself into alignment with the United States, particularly on the issue of semiconductors.

Julien Buffet is a French Ph.D. holder in international relations. 

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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