By Dr Subhash Kapila
“The new American ‘pivot towards Asia’ is a brilliant illustration of the place of this region which is now key to the balance of today’s world and in defining our security interests. This area is indeed a strategic stake for France which is and will remain a power in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. I came here to affirm that France firmly intends to remain committed to fostering security in the Asia Pacific area.” — French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Address at Shangri-La Dialogue Singapore June 03 2012.
United States strategic pivot to Asia was the over-riding theme at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2012 early this month in Singapore. The three day meet was addressed by high dignitaries from the major countries of the Asia Pacific region with the exception of China. China confined its participation to a three star general. China feared that it would become the focus of critical comments for its recent aggressive military postures in the South China Sea and its overall disturbing military postures in the Asia Pacific.
Strikingly evident was the impression that one got was that virtually no country was critical of the United States on its strategic pivot to Asia and its rebalancing of its military postures in the Asia Pacific. China though not referred in direct terms hovered heavily as the prime strategic and military concern for the Asia Pacific region in the three day confabulations.
Media reportage focussed more on the address by the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his swing through Asia Pacific preceding and after this meet and the analyses of US postures. Lost in this maze was the address of the new French Defence Minister which should have drawn more attention in terms of its strong assertions and reaffirmation on French commitments to Asia Pacific security as evident from stands quoted above.
Some additional excerpts too need to be quoted verbatim to highlight the significance that France attaches to what is unfolding in the Asia Pacific:
- “For us French and European people as well, Asia Pacific and more particularly South East Asia area is an integral part of our security environment.”
- “We the French are willing to participate in establishing a regional security structure in South East Asia.’
- “In this respect, France wishes that each major regional power, including the most powerful, may take on their responsibilities and reassure their environment, abiding by the main principles that govern the international system which we are all very attached to.”
The address of the French Defense Minister was impressionably the best in my perceptions in terms of clarity of strategic intentions and reaffirmation of strategic commitments to Asia Pacific, coming so soon after a change of Government in France and that all European countries are under financial strain.
The last named quote of the French Defence Minister is most meaningful as it seems to be primarily focussed on China. It is China that has made the security environment turbulent and a cause of security concern for its neighbours. China also seems to being advised to abide by the main principles that govern the international system and not run wayward as it seems to be doing in the South China Sea basing its claims on dubious 1300 AD claims.
On further analysis, the following needs to be highlighted in terms of strategic commitments by France in the Asia Pacific:
- France is solidly behind the United States strategic pivot doctrine of the United States. Only China and India stand out as two countries that expressed concern on American moves. India should follow the French example and not the Chinese one.
- France whose main military and naval presence so far was confined to the Western Indian Ocean region can now be expected to extend it all the way to the Pacific.
- To allay fears of NATO extension into the Pacific what is now being projected is that the Asia Pacific is very much part of the European security environment. Hence one can expect a greater European military presence especially in South East Asia.
- Significant is the French assertion that France not only has firm intentions to continue as an Indian Ocean power but also now intends to be a Pacific Ocean power.
- France already has its Regional Command Headquarters in Abu Dhabi along with associated military means. One can expect an increase there.
Overall, the message should be clear to China that it does not have a free run of the Asia Pacific in terms of military assertive postures or aggressive postures in the South China Sea region.
Strategic perceptions that arise and are now unfolding suggest that China in terms of giving shape to its military aims would have to run the military gauntlet of not only the United States and its East Asian Allies but also that such a security architecture is now stiffened by European resolve and further stiffened by Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
France and India have a substantial strategic partnership and analytically one can fervently hope that some of the French resolve to meet the new challenges to Asia Pacific security could wear off and influence India’s strategic thinking.