Indo-Pacific needs 'third way'

Indo-Pacific needs 'third way'

France deeply regrets Australia's unilateral decision to stop the "Future Submarine Program" (FSP) developed within the framework of the relationship of trust that united our two countries until recently, to engage in a military alliance with the United States, which has led them to exclude a member of the European Union from a partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

This sudden and surprising choice is not only contrary to the letter and spirit of our agreements, but also illustrates a lack of consistency at a time when we need predictability and reliability to unite in the Indo-Pacific region to build strong and inclusive partnerships. We need to reinforce the rule-based multilateral order, address global challenges, lay foundations for a just and sustainable economic recovery for the post-Covid era, promote democracy, the rule of law, human rights and universally agreed commitments such as the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and work for a secure and stable geopolitical environment.

As illustrated in Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific is an area facing profound strategic changes. China's increasing power and territorial claims, as well as the global competition under way with the United States, are weakening the balance of power in the region. The context is also marked by transnational threats, proliferation crises, and security consequences due to climate change. The oceans are at the heart of the tensions, and securing shipping lanes and freedom of navigation remain major issues.

The future of the Indo-Pacific lies neither in the emergence of a regional hegemony nor in shaping military alliances. The region needs a new approach, a third way, an alternative to confrontation that responds to the aspirations of the countries of the Indo-Pacific, especially in Southeast Asia where countries like Thailand are supporting the development of an inclusive regional architecture where dialogue and cooperation prevail over rivalry.

This is the approach proposed by France, with the adoption in 2018 of her Indo-Pacific strategy which aims to maintain an open and inclusive space, free from all forms of coercion and based on the promotion of multilateralism and the respect of international law. It is also the priority of the European Union, which has published a Joint Communication on the European Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. A stronger European presence, notably in Southeast Asia, will make it possible to better address the challenges of this vast region, where the EU has already forged solid partnerships, in particular with Asean, whose principle of centrality we strongly support.

France, which will take over the presidency of the European Council from Jan 1, 2022 is determined to promote an ambitious agenda in the Indo-Pacific aimed at preserving the freedom of sovereignty of everyone.

Southeast Asia is at the centre of our priorities as illustrated by our development partnership with Asean, our desire to participate in the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) and our decision to develop our relations with the key countries in the region like Thailand with which we are in the process of actively drafting a bilateral roadmap to upgrade our relations to the level of a strategic partnership.

The regrettable decision that has just been announced on the FSP reinforces our determination to promote European strategic autonomy, which is the only credible way to promote our values in the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific where we are happy to share the objectives presented in the "Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific" adopted in 2019 under the Thai presidency.

With France's overseas territories and communities which represent a population of nearly 2 million people, France is a nation in her own right in the Indo-Pacific where we want to be a stabilising power.

In the months and years to come we will roll out our priorities together with our European partners to propose solutions to the security, economic, health, climatic and environmental challenges facing the countries of the region.

Our goals are clear: sustainable and inclusive prosperity; green transition with a special focus on clean energy and transport, the protection of biodiversity, and sustainable management of the oceans; better connectivity including the development of digital partnerships; and human security with a priority on health issues.

In implementing these goals we will continue with our EU partners to promote an open and rules-based security architecture, including secure sea lines of communication, capacity-building and enhanced naval presence in the Indo-Pacific in accordance with the legal framework established by the UNCLOS.

Security and defence are a key pillar of the French Indo-Pacific Strategy under which we will contribute to the security of regional areas like Southeast Asia by promoting military and security cooperation; and preserve, alongside our partners, access to common areas in a context of strategic competition and increasingly restrictive military environments.

We also aim to participate in the maintenance of strategic stability and military balances of power through action based on multilateralism; and anticipate security risks brought about by climate change. In this context we will reaffirm our naval presence in the region, and reinforce our partnerships, especially in Southeast Asia, notably with Thailand. The region needs cooperation and inclusiveness, not confrontation.

Thierry Mathou is ambassador of France to the Kingdom of Thailand.

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