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Will Australia turn to France for backup amid Pacific arms race?

By Jan van der Made - RFI
Australia © Susan Mossop / AUSTRALIA DEFENCE FORCE / AFP
FRI, 01 MAR 2024 LISTEN
© Susan Mossop / AUSTRALIA DEFENCE FORCE / AFP

As Australia announces plans to double its naval fleet and boost defence spending, the country is also looking to France to help counter China's expanding influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Last week, Australia outlined a 10-year plan to double its fleet of major warships and boost defence spending by the equivalent of €6.5 billion.

"It is the largest fleet that we will have since the end of the Second World War," said Defence Minister Richard Marles.

In an op-ed for China's Global Times, which often echos the official line of the Communist Party, analyst Qin Sheng accused Australia of descending "into the abyss of an arms race" caused by the US, which "has been using its influence to peddle a cold war mentality to its allies both in Europe and the Western Pacific". 

But analysts say Australia is facing a genuine and serious threat.

The Australian government's latest defence strategy review, published last year, posed the question: does Australia have the capability to defend itself in the new circumstances of our time?

"The answer was no," says Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor of politics with the University of New South Wales based at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

The review states that the US is no longer "the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific" and that as a result of the growing rivalry between Beijing and Washington, "the region has seen the return of major power strategic competition".

As a consequence, the paper continues, "for the first time in 80 years, we must go back to fundamentals, to take a first-principles approach as to how we manage and seek to avoid the highest level of strategic risk we now face as a nation: the prospect of major conflict in the region that directly threatens our national interest".

'Arc of instability'

Beijing has been making inroads into the Pacific in recent years, chipping away diplomatic allies from Taiwan. 

Just four years ago, the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic relations to Beijing, last year followed by Kiribati and Nauru. Suddenly, a string of Pacific states that used to have ties with democratic Taiwan had switched allegiance to communist China, casting uncertainty over security in the region. 

Australia's regional concerns first came to light in the late 1990s and 2000s, when commentators referred to an "arc of instability" in the South Pacific – a chain of supposedly volatile states, including Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

In 2003, Australia led a "regional assistance mission" to the Solomons, a police and military deployment that officially ended in 2017. Since then Australia has started a development programme in the country, but spent only some €485 million over five years. 

But in April 2022, Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China, ringing alarm bells in Canberra and Washington. According to Thayer, Australia and the US are concerned that Beijing might want to expand its naval operations.

"The last thing anybody in Australia wants is China to begin docking coast guard ships and then military ships, and then making a presence or a lodgement in the area that we have to keep an eye on," he says. 

France in the middle

Meanwhile, Paris is caught in the middle. With overseas territories New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, France is a substantial power in the Pacific. 

France currently deploys 7,000 defence personnel, 15 warships and 38 aircraft in the Indo-Pacific zone. Its navy is the largest force in the Pacific Islands.

Like Australia and the US, France is concerned about China's growing military presence there.

In a 2021 strategic update, the French defence ministry warned that China had "doubled its defence budget since 2012, making it the second largest in the world, while expanding its nuclear arsenal and showing new ambitions in terms of power projection".

The Pacific region is "extraordinarily vast, bigger than the continental United States in area", points out Thayer. And France's New Caledonia finds itself bordering the Beijing-friendly Solomon Islands.

Resurfacing after submarine debacle

France was initially happy to engage in some of the military exercises organised by Quad countries the US, Australia, India and Japan.

But the relationship went sour when Australia dumped a lucrative French submarine deal in exchange for a US contract for nuclear subs and membership of the trilateral Aukus alliance between Canberra, London and Washington. France's enthusiasm for a common defence policy promptly cooled.

Though relations are back to normal now, France has not yet joined US and Australian protests about China's latest attempts to gain influence in the region. 

"Things were going quite well before the axing of the submarine issue," says Thayer, who himself taught French officials deployed as defence attachés in Canberra. "French people began speaking in English! And you could see that relationship developing."

The submarine debacle was a temporary setback, he believes.

"I think they'll be picking up on it. Since Australia is considered the partner for the region, working together [would] help on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, monitoring at sea, and the larger issue that strategic analysts worry about – China breaking through the island chain and positioning itself so we're no longer defending from the north, but from the north and our rear.

"And that would affect France as well," Thayer points out.

"So I see a growing convergence in interest ... To me it's a win-win situation."

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Started: 02-07-2024 | Ends: 31-10-2024

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