The United States and France: Partners for the Pacific Islands Region?

Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden are meeting for the first state visit under the Biden administration, which is reserved for France.

One year before, on October 29, 2021, the presidents met in Rome to repair the bilateral relations after the secretly negotiated AUKUS security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom. The two presidents issued a joint statement in which the United States welcomed “France’s enduring role as an Indo-Pacific partner" and as "a key contributor and security provider to a free and open Indo-Pacific." They called for “robust collaboration in the Indo-Pacific, particularly given growing economic and strategic challenges there.”

Yet post-AUKUS momentum on the Indo-Pacific with the United States’ oldest ally has been limited. Indeed, each ally gets short shrift in the Indo-Pacific segments of the other’s recently released strategic documents. There is not a single mention of France or the European Union as Indo-Pacific partners in the U.S. National Security Strategy or National Defense Strategy. Meanwhile, France puts the other three Indo-Pacific Quad countries on top of its list of partners but does not mention the United States in its Strategic Defense Review.

This is a missed opportunity. The United States and France have much in common in the region. The Pacific Islands region is probably the most interesting case study in this regard.

Similarities in the Pacific Islands Region

Nowhere does the potential for “robust collaboration in the Indo-Pacific” between France and the United States apply better than in the Pacific Islands region. Thanks to their respective territories in the Pacific, they are the two Western resident powers (putting aside the tiny British Pitcairn Islands). The Pacific represents the bulk of their exclusive economic zones, which are the two largest in the world. More than one million French and around two million U.S. citizens live in the region. The United States alone has approximately 375,000 military and civilian personnel in the Indo-Pacific Command’s (INDOPACOM) area of responsibility. Its French equivalent (ALPACI) has around 3,000 permanent defense personnel under its command. Both countries also play an important role in the South Pacific Defence Ministers’ Meeting.

France and the United States also share less laudable background in the region, stained by colonization and controversial nuclear tests. The end of nuclear testing and continued negotiations on the status of respective territories helped make the two countries more generally accepted regional partners. But many Pacific Island countries (PICs) remain wary about the sudden upsurge of interest.

France and the United States therefore have many comparable interests and challenges. They have vital interests in keeping the sea lanes of communication open. They worry about increasing assertiveness, predation and interference from China. And they have to deal with questions about their roles as guarantors of the international rules-based order and multilateralism in the region.

For all these reasons, it makes good sense that the two countries decided to reengage and allocate more attention and means to the Pacific. The Biden administration recently released the first-ever U.S. Pacific Partnership Strategy for the Pacific Islands, and organized the first United States-Pacific Island Country Summit. At the end of that summit, its leaders issued a Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership, accompanied by a U.S. pledge to provide $810 million in support. Washington has also launched the Partnership for the Blue Pacific (PBP), an “informal mechanism” to work with international partners involved in the region.

For its part, France held in July 2021 its fifth France-Oceania Summit, a format initiated by Jacques Chirac in 2003. The summit called for a “new momentum” and the French president hinted at France’s “reengagement in the Pacific.” More recently, Minister for Armed Forces Sébastien Lecornu announced in a speech at the last Shangri-La dialogue that France would allocate six new ocean patrol vessels and five new Falcon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft to New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Although some Franco-American cooperation exists on the Pacific, it remains well below its potential. Both countries’ contribute to multilateral security initiatives such as the Pacific QUAD (with Australia and New Zealand) to counter illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing with Pacific Island partners. A French liaison officer is also assigned to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the allies conduct to military exercises such as RIMPAC, Marara, and Heifara Wakea. There is much room for improvement in the Pacific, but the problem lies elsewhere.

Strategic Rift

Although Paris’s tilt to the Asia-Pacific dates back to the early 2010s, the strategic vision of President Macron for the Indo-Pacific was carved out during the Trump years. From the outset, it was articulated as an alternative to the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept championed by the United States and Japan. This vision was laid out in a series of speeches given in the region (at Garden Island, Nouméa in 2018, La Réunion in 2019, and French Polynesia in 2021). It differs mainly in that France refuses to be locked in a “bloc against bloc” approach, nor compelled to choose between the United States and China.

As reaffirmed during his latest trip to Southeast Asia, the French president aims to offer an alternative to great power competition. He presents France as a “balancing power” that is neither equidistant, nor aligned in the competition between the United States and China. He has been promoting the concept of “freedom of sovereignty,” which can be interpreted as the Indo-Pacific equivalent of the “strategic autonomy” concept that France has championed in Europe. This position is rather appealing for many “nonaligned countries such as India and Indonesia, as well as to some Pacific Island countries that want to avoid being pawns in a game involving major external powers.

Although the United States has not publicly criticized the French approach, it appears to have come to the conclusion that France was not a reliable partner in the region.

There are also some more practical differences in approach. When the U.S. president says that the region is strategic, the Pentagon and Congress can devote roughly $6 billion to a Pacific Deterrence Initiative. Washington has the means to pursue its strategic ambitions and could advance on its own should it wish to do so.

Whereas for France, beyond the president’s grandstanding, the South Pacific remains mostly a domestic issue. This is partly due to uncertainties around the legal status of New Caledonia, which underwent a series of referenda, the third and last one held in December 2021 (skewing in favor of preserving a largely autonomous status, still to be negotiated), the historical burden in the region, and the scarcity of resources to be dedicated to the area. These factors prevented Paris from elaborating a dedicated regional strategy in the likes of the U.S. Pacific Pledge, Canadian Pacific Shift, British Pacific Uplift, Australian Pacific Step-up, or Indonesian Pacific Elevation.

The new capabilities intended to benefit French oversea territories are significant, but they are mostly dedicated to what French call “state action at sea,” an interagency approach to tackle many maritime constabulary issues. France is willing to flex its muscles—in August the French Air Force deployed three Rafale fighter jets to the region. But it needs to allocate more permanent means to walk the talk of its stated ambitions, particularly in terms of vessels and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. A dedicated Pacific strategy could be useful to frame and rationalize such effort.

Respective Inconsistencies

The strategic positioning of both countries is not immune to inconsistencies, both in their bilateral relationship as well as in the ways they engage partners. At bilateral level, the main request from the French side after AUKUS was for Washington to consult Paris when launching initiatives in the region. Indeed, the United States consulted extensively when mulling their Partnership for the Blue Pacific. After being invited to formally join, the French dragged their feet on the grounds that the initiative would send the wrong strategic signal. Contrarily to Germany who joined the initiative, France therefore opted for an observer status, running the risk of appearing isolated rather than independent, in the absence of any credible alternative to offer. On the other hand, the United States did not always pay enough attention to the specificity of the status of France’s oversea territories, French Polynesia and New Caledonia, when engaging with them, leading to some confusion with Paris.

Another illustrative example is the way France and the United States push their own Indo-Pacific agendas respectively within the European Union and NATO. U.S. expectations regarding its European allies are not very clear: within NATO, the United States strongly advocates for an alliance that increasingly integrates the China factor and therefore develops a cooperation agenda with Indo-Pacific partners. But European observers also hear voices from Washington that would rather see the Europeans “taking care of their backyard” so that the United States can move its assets to the Indo-Pacific, cognizant that Europeans’ scarce military resources do not allow them to be effectively deployed in two theaters.

France conversely has been the strongest opponent of a NATO pivot to the Indo-Pacific, seeing the alliance’s mission is precisely to take care of the Euro-Atlantic backyard. Instead, Paris is pushing hard for the European Union to step up in the Indo-Pacific.

Toward a ‘Free and Open’ Bilateral Relationship

Over time, these fault lines could be detrimental to both countries. France probably has more to lose; it runs the risk of becoming sidelined considering the asymmetry of means and the traction power of the United States. But this is not in the interest of the United States either to deprive itself of its most capable European ally in the region. France holds strong relations with critical regional partners (Indonesia, New Zealand, etc.) and spearheads European engagement in the region.

Conversely, if well managed, these differences and nuances could be the beginning of a sound and constructive strategic complementarity between France and the United States. Paris and Washington should accept that their different strategic positions could be a strength not a weakness. This provides allies with comparative advantages to develop partnerships that the other cannot, leading to complementarity rather than necessitating competition for strategic preeminence in the eyes of regional players.

The two governments should therefore deal with their differences if they are to harness the potential for cooperation. There are a several areas for opportunity:

  • Climate Resilience and Adaptation: As Pacific Islands’ top priority, climate should be at the top of any Franco-American agenda. France is a leading power in environmental security in the Indo-Pacific. The recent U.S. decision to join the French-led Kiwa initiative and Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems Initiative (CREWS) is a positive development in that regard.
  • Security and Defense: Thanks to the geographic placement of their respective territories, the United States has better knowledge of Micronesia, and France of Polynesia. Exchange of information and relevant personnel should therefore be enhanced, starting with elevating relations between INDOPACOM and ALPACI. France and the United States should regularize and increase the number of joint military exercises. Paris would be willing to upgrade its role in the RIMPAC exercises, by deploying more capable vessels and take the command of one of the naval task groups.
  • Maritime Law Enforcement: Coordination is also possible on maritime domain awareness. The Quad is launching its own Indo-Pacific MDA initiative, while Europeans are willing to invest through their Critical Maritime Routes Indian Ocean initiative (CRIMARIO). The United States and France each have leading companies that conduct space-based radio frequency analysis. They should cooperate closely in this area to help both themselves and regional states protect the Pacific’s fisheries.
  • Infrastructure and Connectivity: Finally, it is the interest of both France and the United States to support European involvement in the region and the financial means it can bring, notably through the $300 billion Global Gateway of the European Union. Both countries should make the best use of their diplomatic presence and increased engagement of their development agencies to map the critical gaps in the region. They could therefore help to earmark funding in countries where it is the most likely to compete or to offer an alternative to China’s considerable investments in infrastructure funding and connectivity projects.

The “robust collaboration” that the two presidents have been calling for certainly requires further efforts to increase mutual understanding and cooperation. The set-up of a bilateral dialogue at the official level dedicated to the cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, and supported by a Track 1.5 initiative, could help allies support this objective. Strategic fault lines might be hard to bridge, but that should not prevent the two allies from collaborating given the importance and magnitude of the challenges in the region.

Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nilanthi Samaranayake is the director of the Strategy and Policy Analysis Program at the CNA. Zack Cooper is a senior fellow in the American Enterprise Institute. Celine Pajon is a research fellow at the Center for Asian Studies of the Paris-based Institut français des relations internationales and a senior fellow in the Japan Chair of the Brussels-based Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy of the Brussels School of Governance.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mathieu Droin
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Nilanthi Samaranayake

Director of the Strategy and Policy Analysis Program,CNA

Zack Cooper

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

Celine Pajon

Research Fellow, Center for Asian Studies and Senior Fellow, Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy