Balancing China’s unilateral authoritarian outreach is increasingly becoming a priority for democratic powers. Among European powers, France has taken the lead in shoring up defenses against China. France is also an Indo-Pacific power, and Paris has now joined hands with India and Australia to advance a trilateral that appears to be balancing out China.
On 9 September 2020, India, France, and Australia launched a trilateral dialogue with the aim of boosting cooperation to ensure a “peaceful, secure, prosperous and rules-based Indo-Pacific.” The meeting marked the formal entrance of a leading European power, France, into an Indo-Pacific orbit and represents the first step of a major, cross-continent effort to question and check China’s autocracy in the region. As such, it may potentially have considerable ramifications, especially if other European powers are encouraged to engage in similar efforts.
Described as “outcome-oriented”, the summit included an exchange of views on priorities and mutual challenges and exploration of possible avenues for practical cooperation, particularly in the maritime domain and in promoting global commons. The foreign ministers of India, France, and Australia also reportedly devised strategies to enhance their future collaboration on regional and multilateral platforms. The dialogue is launched at a time when China’s conduct of its foreign policy is becoming a key source of concern for the states in the Indo-Pacific region, and when distrust of China internationally has reached new levels following its handling of the outbreak of the pandemic. Moreover, Beijing’s military assertiveness on the India-China border and in the East China Sea has dented its image as a responsible power in the Indo-Pacific region. Although there are no reports that the discussion centered on, or even included, China, the potential, geopolitical implications of the trilateral dialogue are hardly lost on Beijing.
The inclusion of France provides the Indo-Pacific political grouping with more credibility, and could make it more attractive for smaller Asian states that have been hesitant to enter any Indo-Pacific alliance that does not involve China, as they fear being caught in the US-China rivalry. At a time when Washington and Beijing are increasingly at loggerheads, the Canberra-Paris-New Delhi axis offers a setting that is free of American and Chinese interference, where issues that are of joint concern not only for India, Australia, and France, but also for the other countries in the Indo-Pacific can be addressed. It will be especially useful for the countries of the Indo-Pacific that France brings with it a staunch commitment to a rules-based international order.
In terms of practical cooperation, there are multiple avenues in which a stronger bilateral collaboration as well as a tripartite cooperation between India, France, and Australia will contribute to independent development and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Ultimately, the trilateral of France, India, and Australia is an expression of the three countries’ determination to balance China and is a powerful reminder to China that its ambitions to establish dominance in the Indo-Pacific will henceforth be met with cross-continental counter-measures.
‘Balancing China in the Indo-Pacific: France Joins Hands with – India and Australia’ – Policy Brief by Niklas Swanström, Jagannath P. Panda and Mahima N. Duggal – Institute for Security & Development Policy / ISDP.