Standing Up to China’s Challenge: Can France and the UK Pivot to the Pacific?

Written by | Friday, August 31st, 2018

The US administration’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy will seek to “sustain favorable balances of power” by bolstering cooperation with its critical allies, Australia, India, and Japan. But these are not the only countries with vested interests in the region. Europe’s two greatest military powers, France and the UK, are currently pursuing their own versions of a Pacific pivot. At the June 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, the French and British defense ministers outlined their ambitions and announced that both navies would sail warships through contested waters in the South China Sea to help promote the free and open rules-based order.

Europe remains a relatively small player in the Indo-Pacific. But as global middle powers, France and the UK could meaningfully contribute to regional security efforts, particularly by expanding bilateral and multilateral cooperation initiatives with likeminded regional partners. The United States should welcome their growing interest and presence in the region and maximize their involvement in US strategic partnerships. Beyond the apparent benefits, this collaboration could help reverse the downward spiral currently engulfing the transatlantic relationship.

Because France and the UK have complementary and, in some cases, overlapping roles to play in the region, enhancing Franco-British cooperation in the Indo-Pacific makes sense. There is already a good track record to build on, and working together, France and the UK could provide a platform for other European countries, such as Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, to increase their contributions to Indo-Pacific security efforts. By demonstrating a greater interest and willingness to engage in regional affairs, the UK could also alleviate allies’ concerns about the impact of Brexit and rebut the declinist narrative surrounding its departure from the EU. Meanwhile, France is slated to become the leading EU power in the region after Brexit.

Given Paris and London’s appetite for increased participation, Washington should purposefully incorporate its European allies, as it will facilitate the implementation of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Washington could help ensure consistency and coordination among current and future regional security initiatives. In principle, both France and the UK espouse the safeguarding of a free and open Indo-Pacific, whereby both European powers could lend international support and legitimacy to the effort. Special attention should be paid to areas where European powers can add value and complement US-led efforts, such as certain training functions and maritime security responsibilities.

Of course, European and US shared interests in the Indo-Pacific go beyond mere security concerns. European and US officials are also concerned about China’s trade and economic practices and the geostrategic implications of projects such as its Belt and Road Initiative. Ideally, transatlantic cooperation and coordination should extend beyond the realm of security. However, the Trump administration’s imposition of trade tariffs against its European partners undermines joint US-EU efforts to address shared challenges posed by China on trade. Therefore, with the economic dimension of the transatlantic agenda currently in tatters, insulating the security agenda is crucial.

Joint action in the Indo-Pacific represents one of the few remaining areas where meaningful cooperation between the United States and Europe – particularly France and the UK – is still possible. The United States should welcome increased interest and activities by its French and British allies in the region and try to maximize their involvement in the partnerships that will be at the core of its own emerging Indo-Pacific strategy.

‘Can France and the UK Pivot to the Pacific?’ – Article by Erik Brattberg, Philippe le Corre and Etienne Soula – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(The Article can be downloaded here)

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