Can France Help Check China in the Asia-Pacific?
A French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, in a peacekeeping mission off Lebanon (Picture Credit: Simon Ghesquiere/Marine Nationale)
Nobody ever thinks about France. Commentators on geopolitics often overlook this country, as if France has no weight outside Europe.
In reality, France wields significant clout – especially in the Asia-Pacific. 1.5 million of its citizens live in French territories in the region, including in French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific, and Reunion island and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. Its diplomatic network is vast – the third largest after that of the US and China – and its physical presence in the Asia-Pacific grants it membership in regional associations. And, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it wields veto power.
All this is also backed by hard power. France has nuclear weapons. It is the only country in the world besides the United States with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which makes China’s Liaoning look like flotsam. It has a powerful navy consisting of some 44,000 personnel, 6 commando units, 200 aircraft, and 180 ships, including Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, which can transport helicopters and tank battalions, and submarines armed with state-of-the-art, hypersonic missiles. Its military has also gained extensive combat experience through France’s many engagements in Africa and the Middle East.
After years of lying relatively low, France seems to be growing increasingly willing to take on a greater role on the global stage. It’s no secret that Germany is the dominant economic power in the EU, especially under the rule of the redoubtable Angela Merkel. When it comes to projecting power beyond Europe, however, it’s France that has taken the lead. In recent years, Germany, which is reliant on trade with China, has been more conciliatory towards Beijing, whilst France has been more distrustful. As the EU grows more suspicious of China, culminating in its decision to freeze its big trade deal with Beijing last month, France’s view seems to be ascendant. With the UK gone from the EU, moreover, France is now the only country in the bloc with nuclear weapons, and the only one with veto power. If the EU wants to block a Security Council resolution, it can only do so through France, giving the country significant sway.
After years of lying relatively low, France seems to be growing increasingly willing to take on a greater role on the global stage.
French President Emmanuel Macron envisions a bigger role for France in the Asia-Pacific. When he took office, he tapped Jean-Yves Le Drian for his minister of foreign affairs. Le Drian was a veteran civil servant who had served Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, as minister of defense, and had visited almost every East Asian country during his tenure. As minister of foreign affairs, Le Drian has taken a keen interest in the region, and orchestrated Macron’s visit to Australia in 2018, where the French president announced his vision for France’s role in Asia, which included engaging with regional organizations (in particular the ASEAN), and helping to solve regional crises. When Macron reshuffled his cabinet last year, one of the few people he retained was Le Drian, one of his most popular ministers, and a sign that France’s presence in the region is only going to grow.
Macron has also demonstrated a willingness to stand up to Beijing. It has sent its warships on freedom of navigation operations through the Taiwan Straits, even if that stoked Chinese ire. Over the past few years, France has sold warships to Taiwan in the face of Chinese whinging. And, unlike with Germany, China has little leverage to retaliate. After Chinese nationalists tried to boycott French supermarket chain Carrefour over Tibet in 2008, France has since reduced its exports of goods to China in favor of something less vulnerable: nowadays, France’s biggest economic interests in China are in the form of services. Of course, no one is safe from sanctions under the arbitrary rule of a dictatorship, but uprooting a company that provides vital services to your citizens is not as easy as blocking goods from entering.
France has also shown a willingness, and an ability, to rally the rest of the EU in solidarity against China, if necessary. In 2019, Macron led EU leaders to famously declare that “The time of European naivete has ended […] for many years we had an uncoordinated approach and China took advantage of our divisions.” This should set the tone for the EU’s attitude in the first half of 2022, when France will take over its rotating presidency. With its diplomatic and military clout, France looks set to spearhead the EU’s position in the Asia Pacific.
With its diplomatic and military clout, France looks set to spearhead the EU’s position in the Asia Pacific.
The Americans, too, will have to keep France in mind. After weathering the Trump storm, Macron is now cautiously embracing the new administration. If US President Joe Biden wants to draw the EU and NATO closer to America as it squares off against China, France will be the linchpin.
It would be a great mistake to discount France’s significance in the Asia-Pacific: it’s the only country with the means and the will to shape EU policy in the region.