In the autumn of 2018, as the sun set on Sydney Harbour, President Emmanuel Macron announced France’s Indo-Pacific strategy before dozens of sailors on HMAS Canberra. It was a landmark moment, the first time a European power had made a substantial policy intervention in Australia’s neighbourhood, designed to put the security of the region “at the heart of global issues”.
On Sunday, Macron revealed doubts about the commitment he had made. The two-term French president and de facto leader of Europe warned against the continent getting “caught up in crises that are not ours” after a whirlwind tour of China where he was given a rock star welcome and described as a “bosom friend” by Xi Jinping, the Chinese president who has repeatedly threatened to take Taiwan by force if necessary.
The strategic reality of the situation has changed since that May day in 2018 when Macron and then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull toured Sydney’s Garden Island. AUKUS was not yet on the horizon. A $50 billion deal with France to build Australia’s next fleet of submarines was struggling but under way and Russia had not yet bombed Kyiv. The Chinese government had spent years condemning Taiwan’s “separatist forces” but had not encircled the island and run live-fire exercises as it did again for a third day in a row on Monday.
“Europeans cannot resolve the crisis in Ukraine; how can we credibly say on Taiwan, ‘watch out, if you do something wrong, we will be there’?” Macron told the Politico and Les Echos reporters on board his plane between Beijing and Guangzhou.
The brutal assessment of Europe’s battered capabilities is hard to argue with, but the change in attitude is striking for a country that still has territories home to 1.6 million people and $176 billion in investment across the Indo-Pacific – a region that stretches from India to the Coral Sea and has Taiwan as both its geographic centre and largest military and diplomatic flashpoint.
In the first words of Macron’s own strategy: “The Indo‑Pacific is an area that is seeing profound strategic changes. China’s power is increasing, and its territorial claims are expressed with greater and greater strength.”
Macron backed his words with action. In 2020 France became the first European nation to appoint a dedicated Indo-Pacific ambassador; the former ambassador to Australia, Christophe Penot, was charged with managing relationships in the region and China’s position as a “systemic rival” to Europe and France.
France’s former minister for the armed forces, Florence Parly, pushed for an Indo-Pacific “axis, with France, India and Australia as its backbone” to develop foreign policy.
“History is replete with big power competition,” she said. “The slowly assembling parts of a tragedy do not mean that the tragedy is inevitable, but pretending to ignore what looms does not help.”
Parly, a veteran of the French government since Jacques Chirac’s administration in the early 2000s and a key driver of the Indo-Pacific strategy, was replaced last year by 35-year-old Sébastien Lecornu. Lecornu has pledged to protect navigation in the Pacific but one of 51 points in the joint declaration signed by Macron and Xi on Sunday also said the two “deepen exchanges between People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theatre and the French units in Asia-Pacific”.
In the Politico interview published on Sunday, Macron repeatedly raised France’s and Europe’s autonomy, a word used only twice in the Indo-Pacific strategy to refer to ASEAN and food security, as France hedges its bets to deal with its more complicated geopolitical reality.
The phrase has been welcomed by China’s leaders as it allows them to emphasise the division between Europe and the United States.
“This will be debated by many,” said the co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations Carl Bildt. “It’s undoubtedly correct that [Europe] should form its own policy on China, but it’s equally correct that in many aspects – if not all – it will align closely with the approach of the [United States].”
By Friday, it was clear that Beijing had done everything it could to shift that equation.
Inside the Pine Garden beneath Baiyun Mountain in Guangzhou, Xi and Macron listened to a thousand-year-old song played on a thousand-year-old instrument, the Guqin.
“Only bosom friends can understand this music,” Xi told Macron.
Macron, who went to China with Ukraine and European unity at the top of his agenda, came home with more than just an understanding of Chinese folk songs.
“The Chinese are also concerned about their unity and Taiwan, from their point of view, is a component of this,” he told Les Echos. “It is important to understand how they reason.”
Source: The Age