France’s Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regional Strategy Draws Closer to SL

28 February, 2024

International Affairs

As Sri Lanka emerges as a key player in the strategic landscape of the Indian Ocean Region, numerous countries are vying to establish their presence in the region. Despite France’s significant territories in the Indian Ocean, it formally joined the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) framework only three years ago. With Chinese influence expanding on one side of the Indian Ocean and growing rivalry between China and the US on the other, Sri Lanka’s focal point of interest in geopolitics has turned out to be crucial. 

In this backdrop, Marc Abensour, the French Ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, visited Colombo last week and engaged with a select group of media representatives, highlighting France’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and emphasising the importance of Sri Lanka within this strategic framework that also links to the Indian Ocean regional interests.

As per the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, France boasts a longstanding presence in the Indian Ocean, dating back to the 17th century. Notably, Mayotte, situated between Madagascar and Mozambique, continues to be a French overseas department, alongside La Réunion. Among the established actors in the region, France maintains the most extensive diplomatic network, comprising missions and embassies in Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka.

Additionally, the French Armed Forces maintain military bases in Réunion and Mayotte to protect French territories and offer regional humanitarian aid. France and India have fostered a strategic and maritime partnership since the early 1980s, marked by their inaugural joint naval exercises. Their annual joint military air-sea exercise, ‘Varuna,’ last conducted in January 2023, serves as a crucial platform for their navies to engage in sophisticated manoeuvres in the western Indian Ocean.

French territories in Indian Ocean Region

Ambassador Abensour, addressing the media, outlined France’s role in the Indo-Pacific Region, emphasising Sri Lanka’s burgeoning significance as a partner. He emphasised France’s active involvement in the Indo-Pacific, citing the recent visit by the French President to numerous countries in the region, including Sri Lanka, South Pacific nations like Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Java, Japan and China was on that purpose. 

“This extensive outreach illustrates France’s deep engagement in the region, despite concurrent crises in the Middle East and Ukraine,” Envoy Abensour reiterated.

He added that France’s strong commitment to its partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, highlights France’s status as a resident nation in the region, with French territories spanning from the South Pacific, including Polynesia, to the Indian Ocean. Further, he noted there are French territories in the Antarctic, showcasing France’s multifaceted presence and commitment to the Indo-Pacific.

He elaborated on France’s presence in the Indian Ocean Region, highlighting the existence of French territories and approximately 1.2 million French citizens residing there. He further noted that about 30 per cent of France’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) lies in the Indian Ocean, making it one of the largest compared to other countries. Speaking about France’s contribution to regional stability, he emphasised the military governance presence in the Indian Ocean. France maintains military personnel stationed in the region, with military bases in Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), totalling around 4,000 deployed personnel across the Indian Ocean. “These personnel play a crucial role in protecting French sovereignty and regularly engage in missions aimed at securing access to global commerce, including safeguarding sea lanes of communication and cyber communication, as well as protecting underwater cables.”

“The result of converging approaches in the Indo-Pacific is our shared commitment to avoiding any deviation from global norms. We prioritise inclusivity and reject bloc-to-block logic. Our aim is to reduce tensions, prevent escalation and avoid confrontational approaches that could further polarise the region.”

He emphasised the similarities between Sri Lanka and France, clarifying France’s close alliance with the United States. “As a NATO member, France maintains a longstanding and close partnership with the US across the Indo-Pacific, providing opportunities for joint initiatives and cooperation,” he said and noted, “At the same time, we don’t think there is any equidistance between Washington and Beijing. That is why we say we have a close relationship with the US.”

He highlighted the importance of continuing dialogue with China to address areas of disagreement while also collaborating on key global issues such as combating climate change and addressing debt challenges. He referenced the Chinese Prime Minister’s participation in the Paris summit last June, highlighting the new financial pact aimed at combining diplomacy with climate resilience efforts. Despite ongoing crises such as the situation in Ukraine and the Middle East, as well as issues in the Red Sea, he emphasised the significance of maintaining discussions with China given its status as a permanent member of the International Security Council.

In alignment with the three-pillar approach endorsed by the EU for dealing with China regarding economic competition and strategic rivalry, France has adopted what is termed the “linking without coupling” approach within this framework. The Ambassador emphasised the usefulness of this approach within France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, providing a valuable framework for addressing the complex issues.

Commenting on the US-China approach, he acknowledged the importance of partners not feeling coerced into choosing sides. France’s approach emphasises inclusiveness and promoting an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, offering alternative projects and initiatives to reduce dependencies and provide broader options. Diversifying partnerships is crucial, ensuring mutual benefits for Sri Lanka and France in maritime security cooperation.

“We aim to uphold the principles of the law of the sea, freedom of navigation and secure sea lanes of communication, fostering a partnership grounded in sovereignty. The EU’s Global Gateway programme, covering areas such as connectivity and transportation, complements existing initiatives and offers additional opportunities for collaboration,” he added.

In the Indo-Pacific region, 25 flagship projects were launched last year, showcasing France’s commitment to the region’s development and security.

Maritime security and safety school by France

He elaborated, “One significant aspect of our convergence with Sri Lanka involves the development of cooperative initiatives aimed at enhancing autonomy and resilience across various domains, particularly in maritime security and environmental conservation, including the fight against climate change.”

“We are heavily focused on maritime security in our collaboration with Sri Lanka and are currently engaged in a joint project to establish a dedicated school for practical training in maritime security and safety. This school, to be hosted by the Kotelawala Defence University (KDU), will also have a branch in Trincomalee. During discussions with the Navy Commander, we received invaluable support for this project,” noted the Ambassador.

“We are eager to commence this project as soon as the agreement is finalised. This initiative in Sri Lanka can collaborate to bolster maritime architecture in the Indian Ocean Region, while also contributing to a broader framework across the Indo-Pacific,” he added.

He pointed out that the launch of the maritime school will involve information sharing, capacity-building programmes and the utilisation of tools developed by the EU, such as the Indo-Pacific Regional Information Sharing (IORIS) platform, which the Sri Lanka Navy currently utilises. “By facilitating the interconnection and interoperability of various maritime domain awareness centres, we aim to strengthen regional maritime security,” the Ambassador explained.

Recognising Sri Lanka’s interest in diversifying its partnerships, both countries are committed to fostering comprehensive maritime cooperation. “Through our joint efforts, we aim to uphold the principles of the law of the sea and ensure freedom of navigation, thereby securing vital sea lanes of communication. This partnership represents a mutual commitment to sovereignty and underscores the importance of maritime security cooperation,” he added, highlighting the significant developments in the maritime security sector.

He further highlighted France’s ongoing efforts in the maritime school project, emphasising that the project is currently in progress and discussions are ongoing regarding its precise design. Looking ahead, there is a vision to establish proactive regional-level schooling opportunities for students from the region, he added. While specific areas of training are still under discussion, the focus remains on practical training, particularly for officers and individuals involved in maritime security, including Navy Officers and cadets, with a potential emphasis on maritime rescue training.

Addressing their shared commitment to multi-lateralism through regional organisations, the Envoy stressed France’s proactive engagement within the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). France attained full-fledged status within IORA three years ago and has since adopted a proactive approach toward the organisation and its endeavours. France has committed to increasing its contribution, pledging EUR 3 million over the next three years. Additionally, France has seconded an expert to the IOR Secretariat and is collaborating closely with Sri Lanka, the current chair of IORA, to support its meaningful role across the Indian Ocean. France is actively participating in IORA initiatives aimed at combating illegal fishing, he added.

Illegal fishing

Also, France is actively engaged in defining strategies to combat illegal fishing, aligning with the framework endorsed by IORA and participating in humanitarian assistance efforts for disaster relief. Additionally, France operates a Red Cross centre in La Réunion, specialising in disaster relief response mechanisms, which it aims to integrate into the IORA framework.

“We are committed to addressing issues such as plastic waste management and coral protection, recognising France’s contribution to multilateral organisations as crucial for regional stability,” he emphasised.

Regarding the common legal framework to address IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) fishing, he noted France’s dedication to collaborating with Sri Lanka to define necessary regulatory standards within the IORA framework. Aligning with established standards, such as those set by Indonesia, France aims to make a significant difference by establishing common fishing practices and regulations in the Indian Ocean Region.