18 March 2019

Defining the issue

The term Indo-Pacific is highly controversial. It was first framed by Prime Minister Abe before being adopted and popularized by Australia for obvious reasons. However, it was only in 2017 that it became official US policy when President Trump spoke of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” in Vietnam. It is now used by a growing number of countries which find it useful for interpreting the world, and clearly reflects the impact of China’s rise and the unease that this is generating across Asia and beyond.

In US terminology, the term Indo-Pacific describes a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order with both military and economic declinations. Some uncertainty remains about its geographical scope, however. In his July 31, 2018 speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of an Indo-Pacific reaching from the “West coast of the United States to India”, whilst Vice-President Mike Spence spoke two months later of an Indo-Pacific spanning from the coast of South America to the “furthest reaches of the Indian Ocean”.

But as stated in a recent article by former Australian official Allan Gyngell, “there is, of course, no such thing as the Indo-Pacific. Like the Asia-Pacific, or Asia itself, the Indo-Pacific is simply a way for governments to frame the international environment to suit their policy objectives in particular circumstances” “The Indo-Pacific is a framing device, not a geographical reality – its proponents shape it around their different interests. Each country has its own ‘Indo-Pacific’”.

France is no exception. Its concept of the Indo-Pacific reflects primarily concerns about the protection of its populations and territories in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. These include New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, Mayotte and La Reunion. Roughly 1.6 million French live in the region, and the Indo-Pacific is also a space where a substantial part of France’s trade takes place. Hence the need to preserve freedom of navigation.

Objectives and specificities of the French concept of the Indo-Pacific

Building the Indo-Pacific is, for France, a pragmatic endeavor. It is devoid of any ideology. It is a way to take into account ongoing strategic changes in which some powers are overtly favoring power-based relations, generating anxiety and unpredictability worldwide. It is essentially a way to build a common framework where France can optimize its position and work efficiently with partners. Multilateralism is most certainly at the core of the concept.

When speaking about the French approach to the Indo-Pacific one should consider two elements:

The French concept of the Indo-Pacific is not directed against any specific country. This is not to say that specific states such as China have no place in it.  President Macron once said that the Silk Road should not be a road towards a new hegemony and instead has historically been two ways. So vis-à-vis China, the objective is to create the conditions for open dialogue between equals. Speaking to France ally Australia, President Macron indicated that “if we want to be seen and respected by China as equal partners, we have to organize ourselves. The objective for France is not to react, nor to oppose this [BRI] initiative but more significantly, to build a new dialogue with [France’s] allies”.  

France has not formally endorsed the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The United States is a long-time ally of France and a critical security and defense partner. In the Indo-Pacific, France does share a number of common objectives with the United States, and irrespective of who is in power in Washington, freedom of navigation is one of them. Yet France has significant differences with the United States, in particular, the need to preserve multilateralism. Current US commitment to multilateralism is questionable at best and the Trump administration has left little doubt that unilateralism is its preferred way of dealing with friends and foes alike.

A multidimensional concept.

In French terminology and thinking, the Indo-Pacific is a multidimensional concept, encompassing several objectives and based on a very comprehensive notion of security. As such it does pursue objectives that are similar to those of the US as well as some fundamentally different ones. The differences reflect geographical location, asymmetry of capacities, as well as different visions of the world.

Preserving freedom of navigation

Freedom of navigation is a common objective to both France and the US, as well as many other countries. French trade depends on sea lanes of communication that cross the entire Indo-Pacific. Hence French patrols in the South China Sea, through large scale land reclamation activities and the militarization of contested archipelagos, have changed the status quo and increased tensions. The risk exists that similar situations may emerge elsewhere, including in the Indian Ocean.

France has demonstrated its willingness and readiness to assume its share of responsibility and to work with its partners from within and outside the region to maintain the freedom of navigation. It sends its warship to the South China Sea three to five times a year. It also contributes to the various shipping traffic control systems which are being set up around the Indian Ocean.

Preserving France’s sovereignty

As indicated earlier in this text, France has extensive interests in the Indo-Pacific region. They include 1.6 million French citizens living in French Indo-Pacific territories and an extensive economic zone of roughly 10 million square kilometers. This expansive region is the second largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world. In order to protect these interests, France has regional military installations in the UAE, Djibouti, Mayotte and La Reunion for the Indian Ocean, as well as in New Caledonia and French Polynesia for the Pacific. These instillations contribute to the security and safety of these populations, territories, and interests. In addition to those, the Jeanne d’Arc Group (one helicopter carrier and a frigate), travel the Indo-Pacific every year whilst the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is expected to be back in the region soon. France also maintains a close network of resident and non-resident defense attachés, armament attachés, permanent advisors in charge of military cooperation, and a liaison officer at US PACOM. These forces and networks of attachés help us develop joint exercises and increase cooperation, while expanding our maritime domain awareness.

Mitigating climate change

France’s differences with the US in the Indo-Pacific also includes a difference in analysis of strategic issues. Although France does not want to be constrained any more than any other state, it considers that resources and their appropriation (or anything that may affect it) is increasingly central. Hence France includes climate change, or the protection of the environment, as central objectives of the of the Indo Pacific concept.

Climate change is a threat multiplier and should be addressed as such. Indeed, one cannot overemphasize the importance of climate change on human security in the Indo-Pacific region. Africa, Asia and the wider IOR are being burdened disproportionately by climate change. Incidentally, the Indian Ocean is also the region with the highest number of countries and populations at risk.

Ocean sea levels are rising unevenly and threaten these densely populated areas and islands. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report estimated a sea level rise of 0.18 to 0.59 meters by the end of the 21st century, with the consequent risk of loss of arable land. In Bangladesh alone, a 45 cm sea level rise would inundate almost 10.9% of the national territory and would displace 5.5 million people of the coastal region. It would also dramatically affect food security due to loss of crops and water scarcity. Climate change may also render Indian Ocean nations vulnerable to stronger and more frequent storm surges. As such it entails a high risk of damage to coastal infrastructure, with subsequent high-scale migration.

Climate change could also act as a major catalyst for maritime disputes: Rising sea levels threaten low-lying islands potentially leading to disputes over Exclusive Economic Zones. From a military perspective, it is also a threat to naval operations and infrastructures.

In other words, climate change is not an abstract notion. It may be the source of huge revolutions or of dramatic geopolitical changes.

Preserving the environment

The preservation of the natural environment and of biodiversity in particular, are very much part of the French concept of the Indo-Pacific. Although the least considered of all the threats affecting maritime security, environmental security issues, in reality, impact all other dimensions of security. Droughts, floods, and rising water levels are not merely natural events. They redraw maps, displace populations and create new tensions.

Unreported and illegal fishing practices, which are taking place in all parts of the Indo-Pacific, is another example of an environmental issue with potentially dangerous implications. The depletion of fishing resources hinders the resilience of states and generates new security problems. Piracy off the coast of Somalia was the outcome of overfishing long before it became a matter of organized crime. It can take many forms, from the most benign to the most organized, including state sponsored. But it is always destructive for biodiversity and the natural environment.

State resilience is not the only stake. Illegal fishing is implicated in a range of other maritime ‘crimes’. It overlaps with the smuggling of drugs, humans, weapons and other contraband. In that sense, illegal fishing is a product of the hybridization of criminal activities. 

But unregulated, unreported and illegal fishing also has clear inter-state implications. The straying of fishermen into neighbouring country waters is a frequent phenomenon in the region. It affects the security of the fishermen who often end up in jail when they are not fired upon by security agencies. It can even lead to serious sovereignty issues and national security concerns when there are complex rival claims over EEZs.

Preserving multilateralism

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, multilateralism is at the core of French Indo-Pacific concept. It is both an objective and a process. Multilateralism, and the transparency it requires, is a way to address asymmetries in relations between large and smaller powers and as such, a way for the latter to re appropriate their own autonomy of decision. Joining hands with like-minded countries is also a way of mitigating the growing polarization of the region.

And beyond particular circumstances, we need to preserve the existing international order based on multilateralism (which incidentally was created by the US after World War II and was, more recently the precondition of a Chinese development in the overall region). If new rules are to be defined, they have to be defined in common.


At the end of this presentation, it should be obvious that the common factor to all dimensions of the French approach to the Indo-Pacific is cooperative security. France does not shy away from its differences with friends and foes alike, but it intends to solve them through dialogue. In the word of President Macron, the Indo-Pacific is a way to create the conditions of such a dialogue. The very nature of the French concept of the Indo-Pacific is both inclusive and cooperative and most importantly, respectful of the sovereignty of all.