What are Britain and France up to in Asia Pacific?


China Military Online
Huang Panyue
2022-03-29 17:09:37


By Liu Heran and Zuo Shang


Some western countries have joined the scramble in the Asia Pacific as the region becomes a hotspot in global economy and geopolitical competition, with the UK and France, two countries far out in Europe, making constant moves in the region and issuing their Indo-Pacific Strategy successively.


From February to March, the two countries, both representatives of the West, took turns in hosting the Asia Pacific Cooperation Forum and the high-level consultation on the Indo-Pacific, but as both are keen to secure interests for themselves, competition is unavoidable, and in more than one area.


Competition for geopolitical dividends. As the only EU member that has territory in Asia Pacific, France is more pragmatic when handling geopolitical rivalry. It carefully avoids picking sides between major powers and hopes to secure and cement other EU members’ recognition of its leading position in the union.


The UK, which has a “special relationship” with the US, is happily staying under its umbrella of containment strategy, willingly becoming a part of the military alliance forged by the US, Japan and Australia, and pursuing its geopolitical goals onboard America’s bandwagon. The structural divergences between Britain and France’s Asian-Pacific geo-strategy will inevitably lead to their contention in the geopolitical game, explicit or implicit.


Competition for partners. According to the documents they released, both Britain and France are trying to lure India to be their partner for its important geographical location connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Given the Indian government’s opportunistic tradition, it is bound to strike a balance between the two European countries, which will then compete to provide public goods more to New Delhi’s taste.


In the meantime, Australia’s betrayal of the arms deal and alliance also prompted France to strengthen the relation with Indonesia, whose encounter with Australia, stemming from wrong self-positioning and security dilemma also gave a nudge to the UK-France contention.


Competition for arms market. The greed for economic gains motivates western countries to engage in Asian-Pacific affairs, and selling weapons and equipment and operating logistics systems are obviously more lucrative than working on digital governance and green energies.


Roy-Chaudhury, an expert from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a British institute, said point-blank that a comprehensive strategic partnership would be impossible between India and the UK but for defense cooperation.


At the same time, France, with independent national defense industry, has long lined its pocket in this market. The growing collisions and clashes in the already complicated landscape of Asia Pacific will propel its countries to pour money into national defense and security, and neither London nor Paris will pull punches when trying to seize a share of this huge market.


Yet, whether they intend to “take a free ride” or “lead the pack”, their rosy plans for the Asia Pacific region will be hard to come through.


On the one hand, the US is the most important reason why Britain and France’s Asian Pacific policies may prove ineffective. The US, leveraging its position of strength, has been weaving an Indo-Pacific security net that essentially aims at preventing any military conflict and keeping the current confrontation from escalating, while the regional allies can eat into its competitors’ pockets and consequently maximize America’s interests. There is really not much room for London and Paris to maneuver as they have to follow Washington’s lead at every move.


On the other hand, the “menu” provided by Britain and France isn’t necessarily that tempting. Security aside, the two countries also hope to cooperate with Asian Pacific countries in economic, social and environmental sectors, but the standards and systems they promote are far ahead of local realities and make cooperation less feasible.


Take the France-proposed personal data security for example. Many island states on the Pacific Ocean haven’t even established a sound communications system yet, how are they supposed to build a database to cope with external challenges? As a result, their cooperation with France would only lead to the transfer of digital sovereignty. Besides, how western countries approach regional infrastructure construction –with donation plus high-interest financing or donation plus sovereign cession – will also likely repel the locals.


(The authors are from Academy of China Open Economy Studies, University of International Business and Economics)


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