Marchons, marchons? France and the Indo-Pacific

Hamish McDougall




This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2023 edition of New Zealand International Review

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Hamish McDougall reports from the Second Session of the Indo-Pacific held in Paris in October 2022.

‘Indo-Pacific’ is not a new idea. Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington scholar Manjeet Pardesi points out that for centuries, world affairs have been conceived through the prism of a ‘larger Asia’.[i] Nonetheless use of the term in foreign policy has mushroomed in recent times. It was advanced in 2007 by then Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who famously talked of the ‘confluence of two seas’ (meaning the Pacific and Indian Oceans). The concept was subsequently embraced in Washington DC by the Trump administration, which viewed ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a means to have India and South East Asia aligned with the West in a growing competition with China. In July 2021 France became one of several countries and regional organisations to adopt Indo-Pacific frameworks to guide foreign, defense, economic and climate policies. Others include the European Union, India, Australia, ASEAN, Germany, and even the landlocked Czech Republic.

New Zealand is not immune to the trend. Its Government’s principles to engage with the Indo-Pacific were laid out in a speech by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs conference in July 2021.[ii] In May 2022 New Zealand joined talks in the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. Although these steps fall well short of a defined Indo-Pacific strategy, they nonetheless make clear that New Zealand’s Government sees value in reaching further west to respond to a range of threats in the region, be they security, economic or climate related. This may reflect, as Professor David Capie said in a recent landmark speech, ’the end of the Asia Pacific era’.[iii]

From New Zealand’s point of view, France’s approach to the Indo-Pacific is worth watching, and not only because it governs two of New Zealand’s closest Pacific neighbours, French Polynesia and New Caledonia. Significantly, the momentum towards the Indo-Pacific has come from the very top of French politics. President Emmanuel Macron personally outlined the French Government’s approach in a series of speeches, most notably in Sydney in May 2018, which remain the lodestar for officials working in the area. A defence strategy and foreign affairs white paper followed, and France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy was officially launched in mid-2021. The Strategy very much reflects a worldview from the Élysée Palace. Indeed, the French Indo-Pacific Strategy was delivered despite initial scepticism from officials in the French Foreign Ministry, some of whom prefer a more traditional foreign policy focus on Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

The Indo-Pacific push from the apex of French politics may have advantages for New Zealand. Prime Minister Ardern presently enjoys a perhaps unprecedented rapport with the French President. This is evidenced by collaboration on the Christchurch Call to counter extreme violence and terrorism online, which was given further impetus by Ardern and Macron’s co-hosting of the leaders’ summit in New York in September last year. It is also reflected in Macron’s willingness to support the EU-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement . Now the FTA is signed, the two leaders’ personal connection may lead to other fruitful areas of Franco-New Zealand collaboration, rather than being mired in debates about agricultural trade access (although some wrangling will inevitably continue) or, further back in history, French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

More importantly, Macron is temporarily bestriding the European Union as the pre-eminent political force.  His 2022 election victory made him the first French President in 20 years to be re-elected. The departure of Angela Merkel has also strengthened his hand in the EU, which is experiencing greater solidarity following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Brexit and continued political upheaval in the UK mean that more EU member states, and some countries outside the Union, are looking to Paris for direction. Having temporarily seen off domestic anti-globalisation threats from the political right, Macron is willing to provide international leadership. The result is that the EU’s own Indo-Pacific strategy, agreed in 2021, is largely aligned to the French one. If you want to know where the EU is marching, then Paris is a good place to start.

What is France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy?

The French Indo-Pacific Strategy rests on four pillars, each with a subset of objectives:

  • defence and security;
  • economy, connectivity, research and innovation;
  • multilateralism and the rule of law;
  • climate change, biodiversity and the sustainable management of oceans.

The ‘Indo-Pacific’ area defined by the French Government is vast, including the entire Pacific and Indian oceans stretching from the melting ice of Bering Strait to the Middle East, horn of Africa and stormy Cape of Good Hope. The inclusion of eastern Africa and the Middle East reflects French national interests, not least the French départements and collectivités in the Indian Ocean. It is larger than other Indo-Pacific conceptions, including that of the US Government, which sees the region extending from its own west coast to the eastern shores of South Asia, colloquially defined as ‘Hollywood to Bollywood’.[iv]

What does the Indo Pacific Strategy mean in practice?

Like many strategies, it captures a considerable number of existing activities. Some involving New Zealand are held up in the French capital as positive examples of Indo-Pacific intervention, although they mostly pre-date the strategy itself. These include the FRANZ arrangement from 1992, by which militaries of France, Australia and New Zealand collaborate on responses to natural disasters in the Pacific (such as the Tonga volcanic eruption in 2022); and the KIWA initiative on climate change adaptation, involving France, EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There are other concrete and more recent examples of France re-orientating efforts towards the Indo-Pacific, notably through gaining Development Partner status at ASEAN, and President Macron’s attendance at the APEC 2022 leaders meeting in Bangkok. As well as enhanced diplomacy, military partnerships and defence operations, France has also deployed civil security advisors in countries across South East Asia and elsewhere, including Fiji and Sri Lanka. In previous decades such activities were largely confined to North Africa and the Middle East. Via the EU, France is also encouraging trade and investment links in the Indo-Pacific.

What is motivating the French Indo-Pacific strategy?

From the French perspective, the importance of an Indo-Pacific Strategy is derived from being a ‘resident’ Indo-Pacific power, protecting French sovereignty over its enormous Exclusive Economic Zone, safeguarding the interests of the 1.6 million French citizens in the region, and preserving the seven French territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There are perceived economic, political and environmental benefits of France tapping into an area of the world with 60% of global trade, protecting Asia-Europe supply chains and addressing the carbon emissions of Asian countries.

Is the strategy about China?

Government officials in Paris will avowedly tell you that the Indo-Pacific strategy is not about containing China, which France sees as more of a challenge than a threat. French criticism of the Australia, United Kingdom and US (AUKUS) defence arrangement, and France’s initial decline to join the US-led Partners in the Blue Pacific, which has drawn in other western nations such as Germany, Canada and New Zealand, are held up as examples of France avoiding anti-China coalitions and bloc mentalities, part of broader attempts to retain stability in the region (although they also likely reflect domestic politics).

Nonetheless, scratching the surface of the French Indo-Pacific strategy will turn up concerns about China. This includes French and EU ambitions to act as a ‘balancing power’ in the context of US-China competition. In this context, French naval activity in the 2022 Taiwan Straits crisis, defence collaboration and arms exports to Asia, interest in the Korean Peninsula, anxieties about India-China enmity, policing of fisheries and maritime contestation in the Indian and Pacific Oceans are all apparent reactions to Chinese challenges and competitive tensions. French diplomatic and defence engagement with the US, ASEAN, India, Japan, South Korea and, (as the AUKUS bitterness dissipates) Australia all speak to French concerns about China’s perceived attempts to undermine the ‘multilateral rules-based order’. The French Government’s stated ambition is to play a pragmatic role in dissipating tensions, while simultaneously preserving the international order. It seems willing to deploy soft and hard power to do so.

What are the Strategy’s issues and limitations?

Among the most challenging aspects is its geographic breadth. Although commonly described by French politicians and officials as a ‘region’ (and indeed New Zealanders do the same), an area spanning two thirds of the world is lacking in common interests, imagined community, platforms for dialogue and vehicles for executing policy. Climate change is often (rightly) held up as a uniting existential threat faced by all, yet the effects are vastly different from a temperate agriculture-producing country like New Zealand, to a low-lying Pacific atoll, to the Mekong River Delta or the plains of Kenya. There is myriad diversity in how peoples of the Indo-Pacific address environmental sustainability. Similarly, Indo-Pacific political solidarity can be over-estimated. One example is the diverse responses and lack of willingness of some Indo Pacific countries to vote against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly, which surprised some in Europe.

This means it is a challenge for France, and other aspiring Indo-Pacific powers, to encourage a sense of Indo-Pacific community and to identify convergence of interests. There is currently no regular forum for dialogue between the Indo-Pacific and Europe. Establishing an inter-Governmental body spanning the entire area seems highly unlikely, especially as existing regional organisations such as ASEAN will resist such efforts. This means new mini-lateral and bilateral arrangements will proliferate, alongside engagement with existing regional architecture. This could be messy, to put it mildly, and it remains to be seen if it will contribute to further instability.

It relates to another challenge for French policymakers, which is to genuinely consult with the nations and peoples of the Indo-Pacific about how they want France to engage. The French Indo-Pacific strategy was established with some consultation with larger powers such as Japan, India, South Korea and Australia. The Ministerial Forum for the Indo-Pacific in Paris in February 2022, and the Second Session for the Indo-Pacific in October 2022 are steps towards greater consultation. However much work needs to be done to ensure the voices of all in the Indo-Pacific, including the smallest states, are taken into account when creating and executing the Strategy. There are already complaints from Pacific states that the Indo-Pacific label is imposed by outside powers in a way that reduces the region to a strategic bloc.[v]

The French Indo-Pacific Strategy must also demonstrate credibility.  A claim to be a ‘balancing power’ in the Indo-Pacific likely requires hard power; however, while France is serious about security and is the only EU member state with genuine naval capacity in the Pacific, its military resources are dwarfed by those of China and the US.[vi] There are also concerns from within the Indo-Pacific that the recent European solidarity engendered by the Ukraine War will not last or will distract European minds from problems in Asia and Africa. Likewise, French ambitions to mediate between the great powers in tensions over Taiwan or other issues can seem overoptimistic. Arguably the best that France and the EU could hope for is to facilitate talks in the way that Sweden and Iceland did at points in the Cold War. Rather than focusing on providing balance to alleviate great power competition in the Indo-Pacific, it may be more plausible and constructive for France to concentrate on positive areas of engagement such as food security, cyber security, or climate change mitigation. In doing so, it may even help to preserve small amounts of US-China collaboration, diffusing some tension.

With the EU at its back, an area that France does have some heft is economics. In 2021 the EU turned heads with its 300 billion euro Global Gateway initiative, which seeks to fund health, education, energy, digital and transport infrastructure in a values-based way, reflecting democratic principles, equal partnerships, environmental sustainability and catalyzing the private sector. However, this was announced over 18 months ago and is still yet to be fully implemented. As per some other EU initiatives, there is a danger that agreement in Brussels is seen as an end in itself, and execution is neglected. A successful, flagship Global Gateway project in the Indo-Pacific would go a long way to convincing doubters of France and the EU’s commitment to the area.

French Government interests in the Indo-Pacific are of course influenced by its overseas territories, which it wants to preserve for political, strategic and economic reasons. The 2021 referendum in New Caledonia overwhelmingly rejected independence; however, it took place amidst a COVID-19 outbreak and boycott by the indigenous Kanak population, making the result seemingly unsatisfactory on all sides. Debates about independence will continue, which puts the New Zealand Government in an interesting position.

New Zealand has gone through its own imperfect process of decolonisation in the past 50 years, seeking to rectify some of its colonial wrongs through the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process and partnerships between the Crown and Iwi. A new bicultural national identity has emerged since the 1970s, locating New Zealand as a South Pacific nation. Recent research by the Pacific Cooperation Foundation found that over half of New Zealanders think European colonisation in the Pacific was a bad thing.[vii] Some Governments from outside the Pacific region have cleverly tapped into this process, including former British High Commissioner to New Zealand Laura Clarke who made considerable efforts to engage with Māori and expressed regret on behalf of the British Government for the murders of Rongowhakaata by Captain James Cook’s crew in 1769. Given France’s perceived continued colonial presence in the Pacific, it is more problematic for its Government to take such steps.

Moreover, having partially addressed Māori rights at home, the New Zealand Government is considering how best to apply indigenous principles to foreign policy, particularly in the Pacific, where its Foreign Minister talks of ‘partnering for resilience’ and ‘fishing with a new net’.[viii] It will be interesting to watch how an emphasis on the views of indigenous peoples in creating foreign and trade policy will affect Franco-New Zealand relations, and those with Pacific Island states, in the coming months and years.

It seems an opportune time to reappraise and think creatively about the Franco-New Zealand relationship. After years of New Zealand’s struggle for relevance and demands for agriculture access in the Common Market, the dialogue between the two counties has altered in recent times. This is both because of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is focusing more French minds on this part of the world, and because of a trusting and open dialogue between leaders of the two countries. This makes it especially important for France to widen and deepen its consultation in the Pacific. Equally, New Zealanders need to understand France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, and if possible, nudge it in directions that promote the national interest and enhance stability in the region.

Hamish McDougall is Executive Director of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, however these views are his own. They are based on those expressed at the ‘Second Session for the Indo-Pacific’ held in Paris in October 2022. The event was organized by French thinktank Institut des hautes études de défense nationale (IHEDN) and the French Foreign Ministry’s Security and Defence Cooperation Directorate (DCSD). Hamish’s travel and accommodation costs to attend the event in Paris were paid by the French Government.

[i] Manjeet S. Pardesi, The Indo-Pacific: a ‘new’ region or the return of history?, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 74:2, 2020,

[ii] Prime Minister's Speech to NZIIA Annual Conference, 14 July 2021.

[iii] David Capie, Speech: ‘New Zealand and the end of the Asia-Pacific era, accessed online at

[iv] Andrew Phillips, From Hollywood to Bollywood?: Recasting Australia’s Indo/Pacific Strategic Geography, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2016.

[v] Bridie Witton, ‘Pacific Island states bristle at ‘Indo-Pacific’ label,, 7 September 2022, accessed at

[vi] Hugo Meijer, Pulled East. The rise of China, Europe and French security policy in the Asia-Pacific, Journal of Security Studies, 2021, DOI: 10.1080/01402390.2021.1935251

[vii] Pacific Perceptions Survey, Pacific Cooperation Foundation, December 2022, accessed at

[viii] Hon Nanaia Mahuta, Minister of Foreign Affairs, ‘New Zealand's Pacific Engagement: Partnering for Resilience,’ speech to the NZIIA, 3 November 2021, accessed at


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