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France’s Shifting Relations with China

The September announcement of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States security partnership (commonly known as AUKUS) shined a multi-billion dollar, nuclear-powered spotlight on the divergence between French and American approaches to China. The French government saw AUKUS as more evidence of the United States prioritizing military confrontation: In the words of one French minister, “The United States wants to confront China. The European Union wants to engage China.” On the other hand, some analysts have suggested that the perception that France is “too soft” on China motivated, even justified, Australia’s decision to seek a new source of submarines. In subsequent months, Paris and Washington have managed to turn the page on the AUKUS crisis and have agreed to a robust roadmap to strengthen their relationship. But doubts persist as to whether they’re on the same page about China.

The good news is that, despite the tensions of the past few months, there is more common ground between the United States and France than there may seem to be. France, like other European countries, has actually hardened its position on China in recent years. This is the result of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang; its antagonistic approach to diplomacy; and, for France in particular, its growing threat to maritime security across the Indo-Pacific. As a result, Paris is now ready to serve as a counterweight to China’s rise. To be sure, Paris is mindful of the need to strike a balance between competition and collaboration when dealing with Beijing. But, even here, the divergence with Washington should not be exaggerated. President Joe Biden has also emphasized the need for a multidimensional relationship with Beijing that leaves room for cooperation where possible.

As Washington works to mobilize its European allies in its strategic competition with Beijing, a better understanding of French attitudes can help, especially given France’s driving role on these issues within the European Union. As France takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the next six months, it is critical for Paris and Washington to harmonize strategic approaches toward China in order to forge fruitful transatlantic collaboration on the multiple challenges Beijing poses. This collaboration can facilitate practical cooperation between the United States, France, and Europe more broadly, on human rights, disinformation, supply chain resilience, maritime security, and infrastructure.

China’s Deteriorating Image in France 

In the space of only a few years, France’s views on China have changed considerably. In a In a 2013 white paper, France was still hoping for a “global partnership” with China “encompassing all topics and areas.” Less than a decade later, the difference is clear, not only in France but in Europe at large. In a strategic outlook paper published in 2019, the European Union labelled China a “systemic rival.” In its latest 2021 strategic update, France describes Beijing as a “systemic rival,” and also as an “economic competitor”, and “sometimes an important diplomatic partner.” This shift in perception is also noticeable among the French population. According to polls, unfavorable views of China in France have increased from 42 percent in 2002 to 70 percent in 2020, a rise similar to the one observed in the United States — from 35 percent to 73 percent — over the same period.

This deterioration of China’s image is primarily due to growing awareness in France of the Chinese regime’s human rights violations in Hong Kong and against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In February 2021, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced “unjustifiable practices against the Uyghurs, and [a] large-scale system of institutionalized surveillance and repression.” In March 2021, France and its E.U. partners matched these words with actions by adopting sanctions against senior Chinese officials. Beijing immediately retaliated by adopting tit-for-tat sanctions against European nationals, including members of the European Parliament, which ultimately led this body to freeze the E.U.-Chinese investment deal, also known as the Comprehensive Agreement for Investment (CAI).

China’s increasingly aggressive diplomatic tone, known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, has also contributed to the shift in French attitudes. In a recent massive report, France’s Institute for Strategic Research at the Military School (IRSEM) shed light on Beijing’s growing use of “sharp power.” If some Western countries — such as Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Lithuania — have recently been the Chinese regime’s primary targets, France has also experienced its mounting rhetorical aggression. The Chinese Embassy in Paris has been particularly vocal, publicly attacking the French government, independent researchers, and members of the French parliament. These repeated insults led the French foreign minister to, in March 2021, summon the Chinese ambassador for the second time in less than one year. The ambassador was then told that the “methods of the embassy, the tone of its public communication were completely unacceptable and crossed all the limits commonly accepted for an embassy, wherever it is located.” 

France’s Concern Over China’s Rise in the Indo-Pacific 

Beyond its assertive diplomatic posture, China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific is also a distinct concern for Paris. Unlike its European neighbors, France has overseas territories across the region, which is home to more than 1.6 million French citizens. These territories provide France the second largest exclusive economic zone in the world. To ensure the protection of these territories, more than 8,000 French troops and dozens of vessels are deployed to the region on a permanent basis. The French Navy also regularly sends warships to sail across the region, including through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

French authorities have observed with concern China’s growing presence across the region from the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific. China’s 2017 inauguration of a military base in Djibouti was a wake-up call for France, which remains anxious about Beijing’s expanding military reach. During a visit to New Caledonia in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that China’s mounting influence in the South Pacific could “reduce our freedoms and opportunities.” Beijing is especially interested in New Caledonia’s resources, as it imports 55 percent of the nickel produced on the archipelago. The French Navy is dealing with China’s attempt to engineer a fait accompli in the South and East China Seas to impose its territorial claims. Adm. Pierre Vandier, chief of the French Navy, recently denounced Beijing’s “asphyxiating strategy,” explaining that French “vessels were systematically followed, sometimes forced to maneuver in front of Chinese ships to avoid a collision, in defiance of the rules of freedom of navigation.”

Paris has not been unresponsive to these developments. In 2018, France was the first European nation to articulate its own Indo-Pacific strategy which a dedicated defense strategy then complemented the following year. Under this strategy, France has deepened its defense ties with like-minded countries of the region, from India to Japan to Australia. French warships, including the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and the amphibious group Jeanne d’Arc, are regularly deployed in the region to train with partners and demonstrate France’s commitment to freedom of navigation. Last July, the French Air Force also deployed three French Rafales from France to Polynesia in less than 48 hours and then trained with U.S. F-22s in Hawaii. 

Competition and Cooperation, a Balancing Act

Washington and Paris remain committed to cooperation. Last February, the French president emphasized the two countries’ shared history and values while again describing China as a systemic rival. The recently adopted “United States-France Joint Statement” has subsequently stressed “the importance of robust collaboration in the Indo-Pacific,” while the United States welcomed “France’s enduring role” in the region.

Yet, to be fruitful, this cooperation should reckon with three important tenets of the French approach toward China. First, France has always been careful to not further polarize the region. The French “approach toward the Indo-Pacific is not based on a confrontation with China,” stressed the French foreign minister in Washington last July. Instead of fueling the Sino-American rivalry and directly targeting Beijing, France is trying to counterbalance China’s influence by promoting an alternative model based on the rule of law and multilateralism, an approach which seems to fit with the rhetoric of the new U.S. administration. Paris has therefore been very active in regional fora such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Indian Ocean Rim Association to promote cooperative solutions with like-minded countries in areas such as maritime security, connectivity, trade, and environmental protection.

Second, Europe is an integral part of France’s approach. Following the leadership of France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the European Union recently developed its own strategy for the Indo-Pacific the day after the announcement of AUKUS. Europe is also committed to leveraging its financial and normative power as a counterweight to Chinese investments and technology. The implementation of this new strategy will be a priority of France’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, which will last from January to June 2022. From a French perspective, better transatlantic cooperation over China and the Indo-Pacific also requires a stronger dialogue between Washington and Brussels. Recent months have been promising in that regard with the launch of the E.U.-U.S. Trade and Technology Council and with the establishment of dedicated E.U.-U.S. dialogues on China and the Indo-Pacific.

Third, France, like other European countries, is mindful of not limiting its relationship with Beijing to a single dimension. For Paris, China is simultaneously a systemic rival, a competitor, and a partner. “Each of these three concepts is important and none of them should be forgotten,” explained Foreign Minister Le Drian. France is in favor of dialogue with Beijing to address shared challenges, notably climate change, biodiversity erosion, and global health. Even though AUKUS sent mixed signals, the Biden administration seems to be on the same page. “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be” underlined President Biden in March 2021. More recently, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has stressed that Washington and Beijing needed to “coordinate on issues of global importance where interests align,” notably health and climate change.

While Paris may not see perfectly eye-to-eye with Washington, it does not want to see strategic divergence get in the way of working together in the face of a shared challenge. France sees value in cooperating with Washington on a wide range of issues ranging from maritime security to human rights to environmental protection. If AUKUS has complicated this convergence, both countries seem willing to move forward, especially when it comes to the Indo-Pacific. Recognizing where political misunderstandings occur will only make this cooperation easier. It will be instrumental for the success of transatlantic frameworks like the Trade and Technology Council and E.U.-U.S. dialogues on China and the Indo-Pacific. It will also be key for Washington and Paris to relaunch vital forms of practical cooperation in the defense domain, such as intelligence sharing, joint exercises, and contingency planning.

Pierre Morcos is a French diplomat in residence and visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The views expressed in this article are strictly personal. You can find him on Twitter at @morcos_pierre.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd class Kelsey J. Hockenberger)

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