An Australia-France entente cordiale?

Jun 17, 2022
President Macron of France
France has recently become a development partner of ASEAN - a regional institution where Australia can help draw France into cooperative relations. Flickr / OECD / Andrew Wheeler

Part of cleaning up Morrison’s AUKUS mess will be to find ways of using France’s more balanced relations with the US and China into a moderating role in the Asia-Pacific region. Albanese has just such an opportunity in his foreshadowed meeting with Macron.

For those of us in France, President Macron’s approach to relations with the US and Russia is not a long way from what our own relations with the US and China might look like. Indeed, Albanese’s impending meeting with Macron offers the opportunity for the Labour Government to incubate a Franco Australian entente cordiale which could assist in the development of a more balanced and nuanced positioning in our relations with the US, Russia and China.

Macron as a true Frenchman echoing de Gaulle has always wanted France and the EU to have the geopolitical strength to acquire greater autonomy and less dependence on the US. To be recalled is Macron’s 2017 warning (regurgitated by Trump) that “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO”. Europe, he said, prophetically, needed to develop strategically into a geopolitical power or risk losing control its destiny.

That destiny in Macron’s view is that Europe needs to have a lasting coexistence with Russia and not one where Russia is driven into humiliation by the destruction of its economy. Hence Macron’s persistent efforts to get the EU to focus more of its energies on the inevitable negotiated outcome for the war in the Ukraine. No less so in Australia and the US, European media have been feasting on the drama and bloodshed of the battle’s mounting casualties and the wholesales destruction of large areas of the Ukraine. Rather than this horrific spectacle increasing the pressure for a resolution it is translating into a view that Russia must suffer wholesale defeat in an albeit a protracted war and bear the heavy consequences.

Thus, for Macron, the war is not, as the Americans would have it, one whose major benefits is the crushing of Russia as a nation but one in which there needs to be a distinction between the Russian elites waging the war and the wider Russian population with which Europe needs to coexist in the long term.

Such views and Macron’s regular conversations with Putin have drawn a stinging rebuke from the Ukrainian defence minister and from Zelensky, worrying statements that nothing but the complete defeat of Russia and reclamation of the Donbas and Crimea is the Ukrainian Nation’s immovable aim.

France’s position carries a number of important parallels with the Asian theatre of international relations where the US sees China rather as a competitor to the fast disappearing mono polar power world. For Australia there is the well argued view that we need to seek negotiations not confrontation with China – for, as for France in Europe, we have no option but to find a way to co-habit with our regional neighbours. The similarities are also there in defence policy. Macron clearly sees the war in Ukraine as a means of strengthening the EU’s capacity to manage its own defence. The war has assisted that by ending much of the defence underspending free-riding that has gone on for decades – particularly by, but by no means only, the Germans.

Of course, the war has also thrown Europe firmly back on a heavy reliance on NATO and thus the US. But ultimately Macron sees the war with Russia as a means to create a more self sufficient EU defence less reliant on the US and therefore a means to evolve a more foreign policy independent Europe over the longer term. For Australia, such a policy of strengthening our regional self-sufficiency and reaping the rewards of a more independent foreign policy is also something which has been well argued by others in P and I. France as an important Pacific actor, would be most useful partner in such a resolve. France brings a family of Indo- Pacific territories – New Caledonia, French Polynesia, La Reunion, New Caledonia and Mayotte. Some 1.6 million French citizens habit these island along with 8,000 troops. In Asia it brings its own troubled colonial history and with it a learnt understanding of the importance of the region’s cultural and political drivers and the vagaries of external intervention.

Just how France could become a partner in our region is of course now badly complicated by Morrison’s rushed vault into the AUKUS strategic architecture. In many ways the UK is considerably less relevant to Asia-Pacific international relations and our interests than France. Other than its singular focus on sustaining bilateral trade with China, the UK has displayed no real capacity to position itself as a major Asia-Pacific actor. Moreover, the UK’s attitudes to European issues are no less problematic that those of the US. In contrast to Macron, Boris Johnson’s latest views on the Ukrainian conflict are anything but conciliatory. Any peace talks are, he opined recently, likely to fail, given dealing with Putin was like “a crocodile when it’s got your leg in its jaws”. It was therefore vital that the West continues arming Ukraine.

It is accepted that AUKUS has ended any near term prospect that France would join the QUAD and indeed it’s an open question whether such an organisation accommodates it strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific. In an interview in September last year the French ambassador to India, Emmanuel Lemain, said that while France was ‘comfortable” with the functioning of the QUAD its interest in the QUAD would depend on the way it evolved. However, he went on to indicate France wanted to avoid being drawn into a pre-determined path with regard to Sino-American polarisation: “ We don’t think the logic of blocs being military confrontational is the answer to our problem. We feel that we need a much broader approach with much more partnership between countries, we need to provide an alternative to order pushed by certain countries in the region, we need a positive agenda.”

How then to engage France as a moderating partner in the management of our Asia-Pacific relationships and in particular with the US and China? Given past ill will, it may take time. In terms of our Pacific Island interests a start could be achieved through some form of trilateral Pacific Ocean cooperative forum with France and New Zealand. (there is already the newly formed -2021- India-France-Australia Trilateral Ministerial meeting). In Asia, France has recently become a development partner of ASEAN – a regional institution where Australia can help draw France into cooperative relations. As for eventual French membership of AUKUS there is a view that it could act as a moderating influence were we to be drawn too far into a confrontational stance. But in the near term we could well take a page out of France’s strategy book and resist the temptation to immediately press for its membership until we can see more clearly the way AUKUS is evolving.

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