28 May France and the UK – Common Interests and Shared Ambiguity Towards the Indo-Pacific
Old allies and friendly competitors, France and Britain remain indispensable partners. They are the only two European powers with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Last year marked the ten-year anniversary of the signing of the Lancaster House Treaties, which underscore closer security and defence cooperation between the two countries. Despite these numerous links, Paris and London still often misunderstand each other, impeding their willingness and ability to work together to tackle common challenges.
The UK Government’s 2021 Integrated Review confirmed that France and the UK share many common interests toward the Indo-Pacific, a region that will house a significant degree of economic and security dynamism over the coming years – not least of all due to the rise of China. In the aftermath of the Review’s publication, the British Foreign Policy Group and the Institut Montaigne organised an expert roundtable to explore France and the UK’s evolving strategic interests and policies toward this region. Key insights included:
- France and the UK still have some way to go in forming cohesive strategies toward the Indo-Pacific. Both nations have presented their visions for their future presence in the region, but there is still a considerable degree of progress to be made to flesh out these ambitions into a fully-fledged strategy that could genuinely stand alongside the degree of precision planning practiced by many of our security allies with a more direct geographical stake in the Indo-Pacific.
- Both nations hold significant common interests and values, and should use these as a basis for cooperation in the region. The UK and France already share ambitions for the advancement of democracy, open and liberal economies, freedom of navigation, and a common set of liberal values throughout the world. Potential points of future cooperation include technology hardware, standards and regulations, research commercialisation, infrastructure, and ensuring the sustainability of critical national supply chains; tackling disinformation and working with civil society. Defence will also continue to be a natural area for bilateral cooperation, for example in the South China Sea. Identifying the right format will be essential to turn ambition into concrete action.
- The UK and France should also explore how they can work together with partners and alliances in the region. The UK appears to be moving onto the front foot with its application for dialogue partner status at ASEAN and membership of the CPTPP trade alliance. France, through its membership of the EU, enjoys trade agreements with most countries in the Indo-Pacific. It also has defence partnerships with Australia, India, Malaysia and Singapore. Japan is a significant ally for both partners, and holds important insights for France and Britain on how to deal with China. The point was made that Britain and France will need to determine their positions on Hong Kong and Taiwan as the battlegrounds for China’s territorial ambitions over the coming years. It was suggested that France and the UK should engage more substantively with The Quad, the informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia and India – though participants were divided as to whether it was the most appropriate forum to project power and influence in the region.
- The foundation of a common approach towards the Indo-Pacific should include a common approach towards China. The United States, as well as allies in the Indo-Pacific, are likely to pursue their own path to some extent on China. Given that Germany remains in an ambiguous position toward China, France and the United Kingdom may find a point of cooperation – although this will need to take account of how the EU’s relationship toward China formalises and evolves over time.
- More generally, the ambition for reinforced UK-France cooperation will depend on the degree to which the E3 and bilateral relations are able to flourish in the post-Brexit years. Participants recognised the ongoing value of the E3 and flagged the need to sustain dialogue throughout the next two years, as both France and Germany move through election cycles. On which point, the question was raised about the degree to which Whitehall should take seriously the prospect that President Macron may be genuinely challenged in the 2022 Presidential elections.
- The UK should take note of the EU’s recent Indo-Pacific strategy. While France regrets the UK’s decision not to have a structured foreign policy partnership with the EU, ignoring the EU completely could make it more difficult for France to cooperate with the UK in the region. The 2021 Integrated Review makes clear that the UK is open to working with the EU in areas of mutual interest, such as tackling climate change. This could include a limited dialogue with the EU toward the Indo-Pacific. France and the UK should also encourage more discussions about the Indo-Pacific in NATO.
- France and the UK must demonstrate that their Indo-Pacific strategies do not come at the expense of European regional security. Despite their global footprint, considerable influence and large networks in Asia, France and the UK are mid-sized countries with limited resources. Although the UK Government has been keen to emphasise that its “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific does not come at the expense of its commitment to the European geographical neighbourhood, discussions about the Indo-Pacific in both the UK and France continue to raise questions about the potential implication for capabilities stretched thin. Ongoing instability in the Mediterranean, turbulent relations with Turkey and the future of migratory flows from Africa, are just some examples of issues needing concerted attention.
- France and Britain are reluctant to draw on their historical presence in the Indo-Pacific to frame their contemporary ambitions. Both France and Britain have enjoyed substantial historical roles in the Indo-Pacific, yet both nations differ in terms of their willingness or inclination to draw on these to frame the context of their contemporary ambitions. In the context of current debates around the nation’s colonial past, the UK Government may feel uneasy about invoking history in its narratives; however, the Commonwealth may well provide a useful point of reference, despite its lack of resonance amongst the younger generations. Meanwhile, France’s strategy highlights existing tensions in the region as a means of justifying its sustained presence.
The British Foreign Policy Group and the Institut Montaigne will continue to advance this UK-France dialogue over the coming months, exploring other issues of critical importance to the bilateral relationship – such as European regional security, and the two nations’ shifting interests in international alliances old and new.
Sophia Gaston, Director of the British Foreign Policy Group
Georgina Wright, Head of the Europe Programme, Institut Montaigne
Learn more about the work of the Institut Montaigne at: https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en