India, France, Australia hold Indo-Pacific dialogue: An alternative to the Quad in critical region won't hurt

The notion of the Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis was first articulated by French president Emmanuel Macron in Sydney back in May 2018

Karan Pradhan September 11, 2020 15:34:30 IST
India, France, Australia hold Indo-Pacific dialogue: An alternative to the Quad in critical region won't hurt

Representational image. AFP

On Wednesday, India, France and Australia — as the headline suggests — held the inaugural trilateral dialogue on the Indo-Pacific with a view to "[underscoring] the goal of guaranteeing peace, security and adherence to international law in the Indo-Pacific by drawing on the excellence of bilateral relations between France, India and Australia". So what happens to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue? Are India's better served by this dialogue mechanism? Won't this trilateral dialogue have the Chinese up in arms? These questions and a handful more will be examined in due time.

Attended via teleconference by co-chairs François Delattre (secretary-general of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs), Frances Adamson (secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary of India, this first trilateral dialogue witnessed discussions on "geostrategic challenges, [the countries'] respective strategies for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and prospects for cooperation in the region, especially in the context of the public health crisis."

In addition, the countries "expressed their shared will to successfully conclude concrete cooperation projects in the maritime sector and those promoting global commons (climate, environment and biodiversity, health). The three countries also discussed the challenges and priorities of multilateralism, as well as upholding and reforming it."

Pourquoi la France?

The document 'The French Strategy in the Indo-Pacific' points out, "A nation of the Indo-Pacific, France has large territory in the region (Mayotte and La Réunion islands, Scattered Islands and French Southern and Antarctic Territories, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia and Clipperton), including 93 percent of its exclusive economic zone, home to a population of 1.5 million French citizens. France also maintains a strong military presence of 8,000 troops while French trade heavily relies on the 7,000 subsidiary companies and the 150,000 French expatriates who have settled in the area."

Historical imperative aside, President Emmanuel Macron has over the course of his presidency built on key defence deals signed by his predecessor François Hollande in 2016 — with India (Dassault Rafale jets) and Australia (submarines). In Sydney in May 2018, he declared, "We're not naive: If we want to be seen and respected by China as an equal partner, we must organise ourselves... This new Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis is absolutely key for the region and our joint objectives in the Indo-Pacific region."

His thinly-veiled reference to China as a hegemon naturally did not go down well with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that treated the world to yet another whinge, courtesy spokesperson Hua Chunying's warning to Macron: "Before making such comments or groundless accusations, you should clarify these facts." And when the MoFA's at it, can Chinese State propaganda machinery media be far behind? Dubbing his speech 'baffling', a Global Times op-ed suggested, "The only explanation is that as France is in decline, opportunism is rising within its diplomacy. France can hardly play a big role in the Indo-Pacific region either politically or militarily."

Nevertheless, the three countries persisted with the Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis (hereby referred to as the Axis), resulting in the first meeting in this context being held on Wednesday.

What about the Quad?

The popularisation of the term 'Indo-Pacific' — the integrated theatre that combines the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and the landmasses that surround them, as per think-tank IDSA  — can ostensibly be attributed to US president Donald Trump. But it was his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose policy turned the region into a key focus of US foreign policy. His government's 'pivot to Asia' saw the US engage in a deeper capacity with the Asia-Pacific (as it was then called) in terms of trade (mobilising the now-scrapped Trans-Pacific Partnership) and security (joining the East Asia Summit).

It could be argued that the Indo-Pacific of today represents more of a geopolitical and geostrategic region than the Asia-Pacific, which is more of a geographical description of the same area.

Back in 2011, it was Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wrote, "The Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics. Stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans — the Pacific and the Indian — that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy." Additionally, in a landmark joint statement in January 2015, Obama announced the US' intention to partner with India in the region. This would act as a catalyst for the coming together of the Quad — an India, Australia, Japan and US partnership originally pitched by former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 as the 'democratic security diamond' — as an informal strategic forum.

The Quad, it should be noted, is by no means an exclusive grouping (China may disagree) and its members have recently held 'Quad-plus' consultations with representatives from South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand. The stirring to life of the Axis is not expected to have any bearing on the Quad, which may well in time absorb other countries like France into its fold. However, this will make for a very oddly-shaped quadrilateral and the name will have to change, but that's neither here nor there.

The difference between a US-led and a France-led grouping

The Quad may have started off as Abe's vision, but in 2020, it is well and truly a US-led initiative. And while the Quad and the Axis have a variety of interests, their widely-stated common priorities are peace, security and adherence to international law in the region. However, if we're looking for where these two groupings differ — aside from their membership, a glance at the American and French approaches to the Indo-Pacific is most instructive.

An early paragraph in the US document, titled 'A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision', published in November last year states, "Today, Indo-Pacific nations face unprecedented challenges to their sovereignty, prosperity, and peace. The US National Security Strategy, released in December 2017, recognises that the most consequential challenge to US and partner interests is the growing competition between free and repressive visions of the future international order. Authoritarian revisionist powers seek to advance their parochial interests at others' expense."

Compare that with the French document, where a key paragraph reads, "This strategy aims to strengthen France's presence and activities in the region in the political, strategic, economic and environmental spheres, by consolidating our strategic partnerships non-exclusively but standing by our principles. In an international context marked by uncertainties and rising unilateralism, our priority is to propose an alternative aimed at promoting a stable, law-based and multipolar order in the Indo-Pacific."

In addition to the confrontational wording and adjective-laden swipe at "authoritarian revisionist powers" and their "repressive visions", the American document refers to China only when pointing out where it is wrong and in one instance, when noting that US FDI in ASEAN countries is higher than that of China's. Meanwhile, the French document, on the other hand, makes multiple mentions of China — two of which refer to its assertive behaviour, while the rest speak of deeper engagement and improving relations with the Middle Kingdom.

In short, the US approach to the Indo-Pacific appears to be that of a confrontational world power that seeks to compete with and counter China in the region. In contrast, the French approach feels like that of a middle power that acknowledges China's behaviour but seeks a multipolar and cooperative solution to the issues that affect the region.

China and the way forward

China is unlikely to be impressed by any efforts to intrude on what it sees as its turf and its right to act as it desires while hiding behind the fig leaf of "But the US did it first". The key for New Delhi is not to spend too long thinking about what Beijing has to say and instead to look at the opportunities the Axis presents. For starters, it provides a chance for India to deepen its own engagement with this very crucial region (the country's 'Look East' and 'Act East' policies are proof enough of its importance).

Being part of the East Asia Summit, Indian Ocean Rim Association and BIMSTEC gave India a variety of multilateral mechanisms through which to engage with the countries in the region, but the emergence of bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral mechanisms offers India a host of new perspectives on the region. And there's no shortage of takers, particularly European ones, for this sort of mechanism.

A few months before Macron's call for the Axis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then-British counterpart Theresa May signed off on a joint statement that, among other things, spoke of a "secure, free, open, inclusive and prosperous" Indo-Pacific, pledging that "The UK and India will also work together to tackle threats such as piracy, protect freedom of navigation and open access, and improve maritime domain awareness in the region". The following year, the two countries held Foreign Office consultations, resolving to enhance their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Earlier this month, Germany — that lacks any significant history in the region — entered the fray with an Indo-Pacific strategy of its own, titled 'Germany-Europe-Asia: Shaping the 21st century together' (full text in German). Global Times was quick to dismiss Berlin by stating, "Due to the lack of both hard power and a will to intervene forcefully in the Indo-Pacific region, Germany may only offer symbolic support to the US."

Participating in these ventures must certainly go hand-in-hand with deepening ties with ASEAN countries, but getting on board with these strategies is a great way for India to add layers to its engagement with the region... and China.

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