Australia and France are well-placed to help each other advance their security interests in a rapidly changing world. Despite differences of geography, these two countries share broadly congruent interests and could benefit from deeper engagement as well as a closer understanding of each other’s responses to geopolitical change.
These were among key conclusions reached by participants at the 2013 round of the Australia-France Strategic Dialogue when it met in Sydney on 29 and 30 May 2013.
The dialogue involved a candid and dynamic exchange of assessments among more than 30 security experts and officials from the two countries. As a 1.5 track dialogue, there was a composite discussion among government officials and non-government experts, convened in order to produce fresh insights and policy ideas for governments to consider.
The roundtable was hosted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy with French partner Fondation pour la recherché strategique. It was supported by the French Ministry of Defence (délégation aux affaires stratégiques) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (centre d'analyse et de prospective stratégique), and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through the Australian Embassy in Paris.
Discussions centred around six themes:
- the global and Indo-Pacific strategic outlook;
- the future of alliances;
- Australian and French defence policy;
- responses to the rise of China;
- challenges and cooperation in the South Pacific;
- and challenges in West Asia and North Africa.
The following perspectives emerged from discussions.
There was a shared appreciation of global linkages in security, for example the impact in Europe and the Middle East of changing Asian power dynamics and of the United States’ rebalance to Asia. France and Australia would benefit from sharing frank assessments on these issues, including on the prospects for stability.
The broadly Indo-Pacific nature of the emerging Asian strategic system was recognised. This reflected the expanding economic and strategic interests and reach of China and India, as well as the interests of Australia, France and other powers in the Indian Ocean, including the Pacific.
There needed to be a common understanding among France, Australia and South Pacific countries of the expectations on France as a force for stability in that region as well as the limits to what France was likely to be able to contribute. This was especially so in light of the costs of maintaining France’s role and presence in the region.
Australia and France have strong interests in a rules-based order in maritime Asia and should look to areas of dialogue and cooperation with other states to advance those interests. There would be value in building practical partnerships in the Indian Ocean, for example in maritime domain awareness. Both Australia and France had a strong interest in advancing security cooperation with India.
As US allies, both Australia and France would be affected by shifts in US strategic focus, and would benefit from the clearest possible messaging from the United States about its intentions, commitments and expectations with regard to allies and partners. Australia and France could help each other develop a clearer understanding of the changing nature of alliances, for instance whether their focus was becoming more one of regional interests or of global like-mindedness.
Strategic thinkers in Australia and France were concerned about the potential impact of Chinese military developments. While China is not seen as pursuing hegemony, there remain uncertainties about the strategic consequences of its growing power. This intersected with concerns about nationalism, maritime tensions in Asia and an apparent willingness by some elements in China to take opportunistic risks.
A critical question was the extent to which China could be incorporated as a security partner in dealing with common challenges in the Indo-Pacific and globally. Another important consideration was what obstacles lay ahead for China’s economic, strategic and political trajectory.
As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France has an abiding role and interest in the management of global security challenges, including in relation to Asia, Africa, Iran and North Korea. Australia’s term on the United Nations Security Council opens further opportunities for cooperation with France in addressing these issues.
Beyond 2014, both France and Australia are likely to remain engaged at some level in the security of Afghanistan, recognising the wider risks from terrorism and related challenges in South Asia. In general, however, Australia would be more focused on its Indo-Pacific neighbourhood, while France would maintain a stronger focus on the Middle East.
France and Australia would benefit from sharing insights with each other and third countries about lessons learned from the use of their militaries to stabilise fragile states. The operational effectiveness of the recent French-led mission in Mali was noted.
On defence policy, France and Australia faced some similar challenges in delivering defence capability to protect extensive national interests under difficult budgetary circumstances. In each case, a key objective was to ensure that core defence capabilities were not cut. Recent defence white papers in both countries had rightly endorsed this goal. Both countries needed to invest more deeply in cyber security while maintaining some existing strengths such as counter-terrorism.
Strategic thinkers on both sides warned of the need for governments to remain frank and forthright in assessing the security environment, and to avoid any temptation to let budgetary and political imperatives influence strategic judgements.
It was agreed that future rounds of the dialogue might usefully include discussions on nuclear and strategic stability issues, the security dimensions of overseas development assistance, prospects for partnership with India in the Indian Ocean, and the influence of strategic culture in shaping policy in Australia and France. The forthcoming centenaries of the start of the First World War (2014) and Australia’s ANZAC Day (2015) provided opportunities to link contemporary strategic dialogue with the commemoration of shared military history.
The convening organisations agreed to hold the next meeting of the Australia-France Strategic Dialogue in France in 2014.
Rory Medcalf, Australian Co-Chair
Bruno Tertrais, French Co-Chair