France, Australia and India cement ties in Indo-Pacific

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French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visit HMAS Canberra at Garden Island in Sydney on May 2, 2018. Photo: AFP/Brendan Esposito

France’s president Emmanuel Macron is forging a closer alliance with Australia and India to counter China and its growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

But what can France do, more than conduct some joint exercises with those two countries and export military equipment to them and other nations in that region?

Fresh from a meeting with US President Donald Trump, Macron traveled to Australia in the first week of May. He and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated that no country could be allowed to dominate the Indo-Pacific and, as the Indian daily Tribune was keen to report on May 2, France and Australia alongside “fellow democracy India” have “a responsibility to protect the region from ‘hegemony’” – a veiled reference to Beijing’s growing might.

Before that, in March, Macron visited India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Macron’s day of arrival: “Welcome to India @Emmanuel Macron! Your visit will add great strength to the strategic partnership between India and France.”

And there is no doubt as to what that “strategic partnership” entails. Australia’s Lowy Institute estimated that China provided $1.78 million in aid, including concessional loans, to Pacific nations from 2006-16, and trade and diplomatic exchanges are brisk.

France is the last of the old colonial powers that still has any significant possessions in the Indo-Pacific. Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean are overseas French départements and, combined with the scattered islands of the French and Antarctic Lands, France controls an Economic Exclusive Zone or more than 2.6 million square kilometers in that ocean.

In the Pacific, France controls the territories of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna. A total of 1.6 million people live in all those French outposts.

By contrast in the Indo-Pacific region, once mighty Britain has only the British Indian Ocean Territory, whose indigenous population was evacuated in the early 1970s the give way for the construction of a huge American base at Diego Garcia, and tiny Pitcairn in the Pacific, the home to a mere 50 people, most of whom are descendants of the 1789 mutiny on the Bounty.

But is France, and its new allies, really in a position to counter an increasingly assertive China? And how firm is the anti-Chinese informal “alliance” that is emerging in the Indo-Pacific?

In June, the US, India and Japan are going to hold a joint naval exercise near the US territory of Guam in the western Pacific, but Australia will be excluded – actually an Indian decision, which received a rare appreciation from Beijing.

China is also Australia’s biggest trading partner mainly due to China’s huge demand for minerals and natural gas, which makes Canberra reluctant to seriously challenge China.

And there is not a small or big country in the region that is not dependent on trade with China. In the end, economic realities may derail the “alliance” – and China may gain an even stronger position in the Indo-Pacific region.

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