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We have recently seen proactive trips made by our new PM and Foreign Minister to the South Pacific with a view to repairing the damage caused by the Coalition and especially the Morrison government.

Due to the poor treatment of our island neighbours, the Morrison government left the door wide open for China to ramp up its interest in the region. Worst of all, a Chinese military base was in progress for the Solomon Islands. This was an unwelcome measure by the Chinese, not only to Australia but to the whole Pacific Island Forum.

The PIF has just met this week and it seems that Albo and Penny Wong have recovered much of Australia’s lost ground and have in fact convinced the Solomons of our sincerity and our place as preferred security partner.

This PIF summit was different because this time China was not invited and 2 of the member countries left the PIF just prior to the summit. Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. The latter was more to do with the sharing of the Secretary General’s role in the forum so it is hoped that they can be convinced to return to membership status as soon as possible.

Albo has also recently been recovering a severely damaged relationship with France.

Given that France has territories in the South Pacific, we wondered about their place within organisations of the region. After all, New Caledonia and French Polynesia are already members of PIF and Wallis and Futuna (Comprises 3 islands: Wallis, Futuna and Alofi) has been an associate member since 2018. The PIF should perhaps seriously consider inviting France to join as an active member. We should not however be surprised to learn that the French are already beefing up their role in the Pacific.

This should be good news for not only the South Pacific Islands, but also Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The US would no doubt welcome France’s military strength being added to the regional mix.

The Lowy Institute’s Pacific Research Program sheds some light on the French position that is worth noting.

In October 2020, France appointed Christophe Penot as its first ambassador for the Indo-Pacific. It released an updated version of the Indo-Pacific Strategy in February 2022, pledging to strengthen relations with Pacific islands. In the same month, a ministerial forum for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was hosted by France during its presidency of the European Union Council.

France’s renewed interest in the region is due mainly to three factors:

1. It has several territories in the South Pacific and significant economic, military and strategic interests in the region. About 60 per cent of France’s exclusive economic zone is in the Pacific.

  1. China’s rise in the region is a shared concern of France although it sees China more as a challenge than a threat. Last year, the French Institute for Strategic Research argued that Beijing has entered a “Machiavellian moment” and seemingly favours being feared than loved.

  2. Third, in line with its longstanding support of multilateralism and non-alliance, France strives to offer a third path separate to US-China bipolarity by emphasising “an inclusive Indo-Pacific” and balancing its relations with both powers.

France has often been involved in US and allied military exercises and not only as an observer so it is curious that they are not (yet) part of the QUAD security body. The French Joint Commander for Asia-Pacific maintains a working relationship with his Chinese counterpart.

The territories are actively engaged with China through both exports and imports. But apart from encouraging Chinese tourists, French territories are wary of the potential Chinese debt trap and they are closely monitoring Chinese activities. As a result, there are no Chinese military facilities in the French Pacific territories, including in Hao (French Polynesia), where some fear China’s control of the airstrip.

As we know, AUKUS put a huge dent in our relationship with France due our cancellation of the submarine deal. However, our settlement figure must have ameliorated the pain somewhat. As a result Macron and Albanese seem to be a much better footing now. Besides, the French still have plenty of Australian defence contracts underway. That said, it still leaves us with perhaps an unnecessary complication – QUAD and AUKUS. Neither of which include France.

It would seem that France has similar interests to India, Australia, Japan, the US and the UK. They at least all harbour reservations about Chinese intentions in our Indo-Pacific region. Now might be a great time to closely review the purposes of both organisations and see how they might be merged into a more powerful regional representative organisation. QUAD has a somewhat better ‘name’ than AUKUS so it might be worth considering rolling AUKUS into QUAD with a new title and expanded membership. France should be an active member of this and the PIF.

This then raises the question of why do we need ‘Five Eyes’? This is yet another strategic partnership between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It was a signals alliance for intelligence purposes created at the start of the Cold War so its relevance on the face of it is questionable. So 3 of these countries make up AUKUS while the other 2 are also Pacific countries. In fact, Five Eyes could be disbanded and incorporated into the ‘new QUAD’ when you consider that New Zealand is an actively involved Pacific neighbour, a member of PIF and with administration rights over the Niue, Cook Islands and Tokelau. They would also be as affected as Australia by any regional repercussions from a northern aggressor.

All in all, we are possibly witnessing the evolution of a more effective and relevant regional cooperative – capable of standing up for all member and affiliated countries. It may even provide a reality-check for the current China and work towards a peaceable solution to the friction surrounding the South China Sea and even the South Pacific.

A ‘new QUAD’ with members being India, Japan, US, UK, Australia, France, New Zealand and Canada could well find a place amongst organisations of the region – we sure have a plethora (ASEAN, ANZUS, AOSIS, etc) so a couple less would be a blessing. A formal link between this OCTAGON(?) and the PIF would also be beneficial.

The US has had similar ideas too although there have been no official follow-ups of the proposal made by Admiral John Aquilino of US Indo-Pacific Command to the US Senate in March 2022, which aimed to bring together, at the strategic level, like-minded and Western “Partners of the Pacific”: Australia, France, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

We will wait and see …

GB / AB Source: Lowy Institute

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