Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Defence White Paper: French Pacific power ignored

Defence White Paper: French Pacific power ignored

The Australian Defence White Paper 2013 was not the only such document to be released recently: France's 2013 White Paper on Defence and National Security appeared the same week. But, as far as strategic perceptions of France in our region are concerned, there the symmetry ends.

I looked at the last French and Australian DWPs in 2008 and 2009 respectively, observing that each was remarkable for the lack of reference to France's South Pacific presence, notwithstanding the fact that France rules three Pacific territories, with its largest and wealthiest, New Caledonia, just two hours flying time from Brisbane.

This time, France has redressed the omission, perhaps overly so, attributing specific strategic value to its South Pacific territories.

The French DWP notes the importance of its regional partnership with Australia and claims that the countries of the region have renewed interest in a French presence as a stability factor and provider of emergency assistance. It states that New Caledonia and the collectivities of French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna make France a political and maritime Pacific power with important fisheries and mineral resources, and with access to regional organisations: [fold]

The stakes of our sovereignty have to be defended there, just as the security of our citizens exposed to climate hazards needs to be guaranteed, notably through the FRANZ arrangements (France-Australia-New Zealand). France contributes to the general protection of the peoples and resources of the Pacific Ocean. In this capacity, France develops cooperative relationships with a number of neighbouring states, in particular Australia, with whom France has agreed a strategic partnership.

I have argued elsewhere that, for confidence building and transparency, it is important for France to openly and directly articulate the value of its strategic presence in the Pacific. But it is also important in the specific context of instability in France's South Pacific entities. France is about to oversee a long-postponed and sensitive independence referendum in New Caledonia, and is managing calls from French Polynesia for more autonomy and even independence.

By acknowledging its strategic interests in the Pacific and its intention to play a constructive role, France will more easily convince regional island countries, and perhaps its own indigenous residents, of the value of its continued presence. To this extent, the 2013 French DWP is an advance on it predecessor.

But once again, in the Australian DWP, France remains a phantom. There is not one mention of France in the entire document.

Even when it talks about the importance of the US and its allies, and NATO more broadly, DWP 2013 does not mention France, which the 2009 DWP at least did. And yet Spain warrants a special section of its own. As you would expect, the UK rates. But France doesn't, even though France and the UK both figure among the world's top five military spenders.

More significantly, the omission is puzzling since France is undoubtedly a Pacific power by virtue of its resident sovereignty backed by military power.

In its specific sections on the South Pacific, the Australian DWP makes no acknowledgment of the partnership with France, this despite tripartite cooperation in the FRANZ arrangements and joint defence cooperation and exercises. It is more of an oddity considering that the South East Asian section mentions the anachronistic Five Power Defence Arrangements. And when discussing the importance of helping Pacific Island states manage their exclusive economic zones, no mention is made of a possible cooperative role with France, whose Pacific territories give it the world's second-largest EEZ. 

One is left with the uncomfortable feeling that France might be assumed, in the Australian DWP, to be lumped into the general references to 'our neighbours' and 'these countries' in the South Pacific region. If this is what was intended, then it is a misrepresentation, as France's long-term status is not yet clear, and won't be until the New Caledonia referendum and France responds to calls for autonomy from French Polynesia.

The omission of France is a lost opportunity for Australia to recognise the strategic value of France's presence in the South Pacific, which will hopefully continue well after its status in its territories is re-defined.

But its also a lost opportunity in the context of the DWP's focus on the new Indo-Pacific strategic arc. France is as active in the Indian Ocean as it is in the Pacific, by virtue of its island sovereignty in Réunion and Mayotte, and the military presence this entails. The French DWP more than once asserts that France is a 'sovereign power and actor in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific' and even makes a fleeting reference to its cooperation with Australia in the Indian Ocean — in marked contrast to our own DWP.

Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

You may also be interested in