The Promise for Australia-France Ties
FRAUmin was a clear diplomatic success for Australia, helping repair the damage wrought by AUKUS. But as the bilateral relationship with France broadens, Australia needs to retain a clear sense of priorities to get the most out of its ties with France.
The France-Australia Ministerial Consultations – the “FRAUmin” 2+2 – held in Paris this week demonstrated the remarkable warmth that has returned to the relationship after the AUKUS announcement in September 2021. Understandably, an agreement to jointly supply 155-millimetre ammunition to Ukraine has captured most of the headlines, as well as enhanced mutual access to military infrastructure and deeper cooperation in defence logistics.
Arguably, though, the more significant outcome from Penny Wong and Richard Marles’ meeting with their French counterparts, Catherine Colonna and Sébastien Lecornu, is the sheer breadth of bilateral agreement and cooperation – reflected in the expansive joint statement. Traversing a broad suite of issues including European security, development cooperation in the Pacific, defence industry, trade, Myanmar, Iran, and North Korea, the joint statement is a positive signal of the relationship quickly healing, driven by recognition of mutual interests and a high degree of overlap in worldviews.
This latest 2+2 consultation – the first since the Labor Party came to power last May – should be understood in the context of Australia’s ongoing efforts to shape constructive and deeper European engagement in the Indo-Pacific, a focus for Australian diplomacy in Europe since the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. The time has long passed since European powers were decisive forces in Asia and the Pacific. But the strategic weight of major powers, notably France, Germany, and the UK, in addition to the economic power of the European common market, means they can be influential forces in the future of Australia’s near region.
For Australia, it is vital to remember that all Europeans – admittedly to different degrees – will only ever be Indo-Pacific powers by choice, not by circumstance. Euro-Atlantic security and European markets will always remain their paramount concern when there are hard trade-offs. Effective Australian diplomacy that focuses the attention of Europeans on the Indo-Pacific and draws their considerable assets and resources into the region therefore remains vital.
Despite AUKUS, France has remained the most committed European actor politically, strategically, and economically across the Indo-Pacific. France’s territories and long-term presence in the Indo-Pacific contribute to regional stability and provide a compelling narrative about its permanence in the region. This has also given France the impetus to drive the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy and draw its European partners into the Indo-Pacific. While still distinctly European in flavour, the strength of this strategy and France’s own approach is that they deal with the Indo-Pacific on its own terms and focus on its challenges, especially economic, developmental, and environmental.
Australia has judged correctly, then, that its Indo-Pacific advocacy in Europe will get the most returns by focusing on France. The joint statement, however, illustrates a critical tension for Australia in managing its European relationships, especially with France. Whereas the Indo-Pacific will always be Australia’s priority region, even for France it will only ever be, at best, a dimension (albeit an important one) of its European and global orientation. Accordingly, just as Australia tries to draw France further into the Indo-Pacific, the French will try to make Australians allies in their priorities in Europe and globally. There’s nothing surprising about this, but clarity for Canberra on its relative priorities with Paris is essential to ensure it gets the most out of the relationship.
And it can present opportunities for Australia. For example, the Albanese government’s ambitious approach to climate change and the environment chimes with France’s global agenda on these issues, which in turn has created more space for coordination in the Pacific between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and France’s overseas development agency.
The risk for Australia, reflected in the sprawling nature of the joint statement, is that French priority issues such as Ukraine, broader international security, bilateral trade and investment, and multilateral cooperation absorb too much oxygen in the bilateral relationship, muscling out space for coordination in the Indo-Pacific. This is compounded by the unique structural challenges of Canberra’s bilateral relationship with Paris. France is both distant and proximate. Australia needs to manage parallel diplomatic, economic, defence, and development relationships with both metropolitan France and its Pacific territories, especially New Caledonia.
Within this, there are essentially two separate but related tracks of engagement. The first is on bilateral issues – for instance, trade, investment, multilateral cooperation, and defence industry. The second is on shaping French engagement in the Indo-Pacific and coordinating action. At present, multiple overseas posts and Canberra-based desks engage French counterparts, including DFAT’s Europe, Pacific, humanitarian, Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia divisions; the three arms of the Australian Defence Force; and Defence’s international, strategic, and industry policy divisions. However, these areas often work without full visibility of each other’s French engagement, risking conflicting messages and priorities. Moreover, for such a broad relationship, there is very little bandwidth across government focused on the bilateral relationship, especially compared to the United States and the United Kingdom.
The challenge for Australia is to coordinate these multiple tracks of engagement within the Australian system while also ensuring that coordination on the Indo-Pacific gets sufficient space when engaging the French. It is pleasing to see, then, that one of the outcomes from Wong and Marles’ discussions earlier this week was “to establish a dialogue between senior Foreign Affairs and Defence ministry officials, to be held on an annual basis, to follow up on the 2+2 Ministerial Consultations.”
Australia should be on the front foot on this dialogue, looking to reserve significant space for coordinating diplomatic, defence, and development work in the Indo-Pacific. There should be multiple separate sub-dialogues, one for bilateral issues such as trade and multilateral cooperation, and others devoted to regional coordination. The latter could be structured around three primary theatres for coordination: Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Indian Ocean. While helping focus French attention towards Australia’s primary regional concerns, this would also help generate greater coherence between the various disparate parts of the Australian diplomatic system that engages France.
These and other issues will be discussed when the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy, and Defence Dialogue hosts an event on 13 February to discuss the future of Australia-France coordination in the Indo-Pacific, kicking off a research and policy development process over coming months.
Hugh Piper is Program Lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue. He is also Deputy Editor of The Policymaker, a publication of the James Martin Institute for Public Policy. He was formerly a strategic policy adviser and ministerial speechwriter at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views expressed are his own.
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