Pacific Moves: France and Australia in the Age of AUKUS

In May 2018, while visiting Australia, French President Emmanuel Macron announced an ‘India-Australia-France axis’ in the Indo-Pacific region, of which the $90 billion-dollar Naval Group contract to build submarines for the Australian Defence Force was the centrepiece. On 16 September 2021, however, this deal was scuttled when US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the AUKUS partnership, on the very day the EU was launching its EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Coincidence?

Even before electoral victory in May 2022, key members of the Australian Labor Party were seeking to rebuild the battered strategic partnership with France. On Anzac Day, Labor deputy leader Richard Marles congratluated Emmanuel Macron on his re-election to the French presidency, proclaiming ‘France is our neighbour. France is a Pacific country. And as such, France deeply matters to Australia’.

The notion of France as a Pacific country surprises our closest island neighbours. Members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, for example, see it as a European country and colonial power in the Pacific still administering territories seized in the nineteenth century! Indeed, Macron’s trilateral Indo-Pacific axis can only work if France maintains its colonial administration in the region. There are, however, strong independence movements in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and last June’s French legislative elections saw an unprecedented electoral victory with the independence party Tavini Huira’atira winning all three seats allocated to French Polynesia in the National Assembly in Paris. In Noumea, President Louis Mapou is the first pro-independence Kanak politician to lead the government of New Caledonia in forty years.

Can Australia rebuild a strategic partnership with France at the same time as independence activists in our closest neighbours are seeking a new political status? Australia’s Minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, believes it’s possible:

We’re focussed on rebuilding our relationship not just with France, but with all of the Pacific. We want to improve relations with all Pacific countries and territories as well as with the Government of France and we’re confident that we can do both of those.

It’s a big call. As President Mapou told me when he attended his first Forum leaders meeting last July,

There is no doubt that France needs New Caledonia and French Polynesia for its Indo-Pacific strategy, facing other major powers in the region. But this is not our project—we want to integrate with our neighbours in the Pacific region.

Daniel Goa, spokesperson for the independence coalition Front de Libération Kanak et Socialiste, is even blunter: ‘Kanaky-New Caledonia is not a French land as some people think, but a land of Oceania. We no longer want to be stooges of “France Pacific” and the nebulous Indo-Pacific axis’.

French colonial agendas

France’s formal Indo-Pacific strategy, first launched in July 2021, is based on a number of objectives.

First, it seeks to reaffirm France’s status as a mid-size global power. Seeking to maintain the glory days of empire, Emmanuel Macron is enamoured of la gloire, following the path of all Fifth Republic presidents. His strategic agenda draws on France’s status as a nuclear weapons state, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a nation with colonial possessions in every ocean of the world.

Second, it identifies the Pacific as a crucial arena for France’s renewed focus on the oceans in the twenty-first century. France’s far-flung colonial empire gains it significant advantages under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea: in Europe, it has only a small exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but its overseas dependencies add 11 million square kilometres of EEZ worldwide—7 million in the Pacific alone. As a 2014 French Senate report noted, ‘Present in both hemispheres and at all points of the compass, the French EEZ is the only one on which the sun never sets’.

Third, the strategy sees the Pacific as a laboratory for France’s techno-fantasies. Just as French Polynesia served as a laboratory for nuclear testing in the twentieth century, its vast EEZ serves as an arena for French research and resource development in the twenty-first. In a 2014 parliamentary debate, then Overseas Minister George Pau-Langevin stressed:

France has been a world leader in the strategic domains of nuclear power, nuclear weapons, aeronautics and space technology, and telecommunications. It must be, and the government shares and promotes this ambition, a leader around oceans policy… on renewable offshore energy, offshore exploration for hydrocarbons, deep water sea-bed mineral resources, blue biotechnologies and more.

In his new ‘France 2030’ agenda, President Macron has allocated more than €1 billion of research funding for the oceans. Many Islanders are worried, however, that the ‘vast, empty spaces’ of the Pacific will suffer environmental devastation from deep sea mining, climate geo-engineering, or the patenting of marine lifeforms, just as the Ma’ohi people were left with the radioactive legacy of 193 French nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls.

Finally, a central pillar of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is gun-running. Macron has sought to expand arms sales to regional partners, including Rafale jet fighters to India and small arms to ASEAN, with millions of euros allocated to Indonesian Defence Minister and 2024 presidential contender Prabowo Subianto, the scourge of Timorese and West Papuan nationalism. The centrepiece of this work was the ill-fated Naval Group submarine contract blown out of the water by Scott Morrison.

Making friends with Macron

Given the stark personal animosity between Macron and Morrison (‘I don’t think, I know’), the French rapprochement with the Labor government has moved quickly.

President Macron was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Anthony Albanese on his election in May. Then, on 11 June, the Labor government announced a deal to resolve the breach of the French submarine contract: ‘We have reached a fair and equitable settlement of €555 million (around $830 million) with Naval Group. Now that the matter is resolved, we can move forward with the relationship with France’.

At the press conference announcing that Australian taxpayers would send $830 million to Paris and receive no submarines in return, Albanese stressed, ‘France is of course an Indo-Pacific nation and we share a commitment to a global order, based upon the rule of law and shared principles’. No mention, however, of France’s obligations regarding decolonisation under the rule of law and UN principles on self-determination.

Within weeks, Albanese travelled to meet Macron at the Elysée Paris. On 1 July, outlining a new bilateral roadmap, they issued a joint communiqué setting out a ‘new agenda for cooperation based on three pillars: defence and security; resilience and climate action; and education and culture’.

These defence commitments overturned the post-AUKUS freeze on cooperation, pledging:

operational engagement and intelligence sharing …We will support each other’s deployments and conduct more joint maritime activities in support of the rules-based global order. We will also explore initiatives to deepen and facilitate better reciprocal access to our defence facilities.

With French corporations like Thales already providing key support to the Australian Defence Force (ADF), both countries pledged to increase defence industry cooperation around ‘strategic space initiatives, cyber, critical technology and critical infrastructure resilience’.

Defence Minister Richard Marles followed up with a meeting with French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu in Brest on 1 September. Their joint statement included a shopping list of commitments: ‘deepening of military interoperability, including through more joint regional deployments and training activities’; ‘increased mutual access to … military infrastructures’; ‘expanded secure communications links to improve intelligence exchanges’; ‘stronger two-way industrial and technological defence partnerships’; a ‘wide-ranging dialogue address[ing] the key armament programmes of both countries, from the maritime domain to air and space sector, including land and missile systems’; and ‘the development of space defence capabilities, such as Earth observation satellites, satellite communication or space domain awareness’.

AUKUS and NATO

Despite the rapprochement with the French state, the Labor government remains firmly committed to the AUKUS partnership. As Prime Minister Albanese said on 11 June, ‘We support AUKUS and we support the use of nuclear propelled submarines …There’s no change in the Government’s policy’.

Even so, there are some hard choices ahead. Despite politicians pledging Western solidarity, there is no love lost between European and American arms manufacturers. Arriving at Canberra airport, you immediately notice duelling adverts from EU corporations such as EADS and US firms such as Lockheed Martin competing for Australian budget support (EADS subsidiary Airbus has manufactured MRH-90 helicopters for the ADF, which Lockheed and its Australian cheer squad are seeking to replace with US Sikorsky Blackhawk choppers).

Similar rivalries exist between the EU and the United Kingdom. A proposed merger between UK aerospace firm BAE Systems and the French/EU defence conglomerate EADS was scuttled in the lead-up to Brexit. Today, France’s vision of strengthened EU military cooperation and a common European defence strategy is further complicated by post-Brexit Tory fantasies of Global Britain and Empire 2.0. The current chaos in the UK Conservative party means the likely election of UK Labour under Keir Starmer, though this interregnum in British decline will only stabilise the ship of state for a while.

The inclusion of the United Kingdom in AUKUS was a particular slap in the face for President Macron, reflecting a brutal US calculation that France’s feeble military capacity in the Pacific Islands doesn’t bring much to the challenge of containing China. In contrast, AUKUS creates many new scenarios (for example, could a British Astute-class nuclear sub be based in Western Australia as a training vessel for the ADF while Canberra sends off more cheques to subsidise the US naval construction industry?).

The September 2021 AUKUS announcement is much broader than the commitment to submarines. Anglobalisation under AUKUS promises joint research efforts and new frontiers, from the militarisation of space to ‘cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities’. Increasingly, the multilateral competition between European, American and Chinese corporations will play out across a variety of technologies.

Meanwhile, before any nuclear subs arrive in Australia in future decades, there’s a lot of work to do to maintain the ‘rules-based order’ against the threat of ‘powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy’. That’s the challenge posed in the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy, which describes the Indo-Pacific as ‘the epicenter of 21st century geopolitics’. It says that investment at home and alignment with allies is vital for ‘out-competing the People’s Republic of China [PRC] in the technological, economic, political, military, intelligence and global governance domains’.

The Obama and Biden administrations have both tried to increase strategic focus on China and the Pacific theatre, but Russia’s criminal aggression against Ukraine has refocused attention on the European front as NATO shifts its boundaries further eastwards. Biden’s new security strategy highlights the dilemma. Washington faces strategic competitors on two fronts, so the policy says that the United States ‘will prioritize maintaining an enduring competitive edge over the PRC while constraining a still profoundly dangerous Russia’.

To do both at once, the US administration has sought to expand NATO’s strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific region, and Australia is being encouraged to assist. Anthony Albanese assumed office on 23 June and just three days later travelled to Europe

to attend the NATO Leaders’ Summit in Madrid, to which Australia was invited as an ‘Enhanced Opportunities Partner’ to collaborate on ‘interoperability, military training and exercise programs, and other issues of mutual interest’.

Given America’s divided Congress and broken bureaucracy, the White House needs external support, and the National Security Strategy promotes ‘cooperation with democracies and other like-minded states’ to create ‘a latticework of strong, resilient and mutually reinforcing relationships’. During 2022, the focus has been on revitalising and expanding NATO, but the new security strategy highlights more flexible mechanisms that don’t rely on treaty-bound obligations: Five Eyes intelligence sharing; the Quad; the US-EU Trade and Technology Council; and especially AUKUS, which is focused on ‘defense and technology integration’.

Close to home

Under Donald Trump, the United States began to pay attention to the Pacific Islands after years of neglect. Since then, a growing furore over Chinese influence in the islands, the PRC-Solomon Islands security agreement, and a multi-country tour by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has led to new US initiatives.

Last June, the Biden administration initiated the ‘Partners in the Blue Pacific’ coalition ‘for more effective and efficient cooperation in support of Pacific Island priorities’. Notably, in the era of AUKUS, the founding partners were the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan—but not France or the EU! In September 2022, President Biden also launched the first ever ‘Pacific partnership strategy of the United States’.

Former Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Dame Meg Taylor has critiqued such initiatives as undercutting the priorities of island nations, as set out in the Forum’s new ‘2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent’:

Recent Western-led initiatives such as AUKUS, the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Partners in the Blue Pacific … all deliver a fait accompli to the Pacific without consultation. While all nations share an interest in promoting a peaceful, safe, and prosperous region, the independent Pacific states do not necessarily share the same geostrategic perspectives as the large powerful economies of the industrialised West.

In September, Biden invited twelve independent island nations to an unprecedented summit in the White House—a stark sign of deepening US concern over Chinese influence. However, the invitation didn’t extend to all members of the Pacific Islands Forum, as it ignored the self-governing NZ territories of Niue and the Cook Islands, and the two French dependencies of New Caledonia and French Polynesia. The refusal to invite the full Forum membership was again seen as an attempt to undercut the premier regional organisation. After furious backroom lobbying, all Forum island members were invited.

Alongside leaders of independent island states, Presidents Louis Mapou of New Caledonia and Edouard Fritch of French Polynesia attended the summit. Mapou used his White House speech to stress that his country ‘is opening a new page in its history, since we are engaged, with the French State, in a process which has been called, explicitly, a decolonisation process’. The D-word is rarely used in Washington, and the image of the flag of Kanaky flying at the White House went viral at home, embarrassing French officials and angering anti-independence loyalists.

Moments like this highlight the challenge for the Australian government in balancing the competing agendas of Washington, Paris and London on defence procurement and diplomatic advocacy. At the same time, the planned purchase of nuclear submarines under AUKUS clashes with deep anti-nuclear sentiment in Aotearoa New Zealand and across the Pacific Islands. Ten Forum island countries have ratified or acceded to the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles have refused to endorse. Australia’s increasing integration with AUKUS nuclear strategies and defence cooperation with France rubs salt into the wounds of communities still living with the health and environmental legacies of more than 315 US, British and French nuclear tests across the region.

As she stood before the UN General Assembly in September, Senator Wong proclaimed that ‘as Foreign Minister, I am determined to see First Nations perspectives at the heart of Australian foreign policy’. Those words have resonated in New Caledonia, Bougainville and West Papua, given that the central principle of First Nations advocacy—and international human rights law—is the right to self-determination. But for a government seeking to balance global geopolitics and regional partnerships, there are problems ahead, as its Pacific neighbours are charting their own pathways, avoiding a choice between China and the United States and focusing on the main security threat to the region—the climate emergency.

About the author

Nic Maclellan

Nic Maclellan is a correspondent for Islands Business magazine (Fiji) and a contributor to Pacnews, Inside Story and other regional media. He was awarded the Walkley Foundation’s Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism in 2020.

More articles by Nic Maclellan

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