Growing anti-China alliance in Indo-Pacific a boon for French-Aussie relations

Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi is touring eight Pacific island nations as part of a strategy to increase Beijing's clout in the region. The move triggered Western countries to strengthen ties and may re-boot the relationship between France and Australia, still suffering from a submarine deal that went wrong.

"The submarine deal is water under the bridge," Carlyle Thayer, a professor with the Australia Defence University, told RFI. "The two countries shared the same strategic interest before that deal was aborted."

Thayer is referring to a $56 billion deal between French company Naval Group and the Australian Ministry of Defence. In March 2021, the government of Scott Morisson hailed the purchase of 12 French-made ocean attack submarines – diesel fuelled – as a "major milestone" in the development of Australia's "Future Submarine Program".

The deal would strengthen the Franco-Australian strategic partnership and create thousands of jobs.

But just 18 months later, Canberra dumped the deal in favour of US nuclear-powered subs as part of the abruptly announced Aukus trilateral alliance between Australia, the UK and the US.

Relations between Paris and Canberra dived below zero, France called back its ambassador and French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian branded the action “unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners".

But as of this week, things may change. Morisson lost the Australian election to make place for Labour leader Anthony Albanese.

Albanese "like President Macron, was given 12 hours' notice of the announcement of Aukus," says Thayer.

"They had no idea it was coming." But he adds that the Aukus philosophy (a strong alliance to counter China's influence) could benefit France. "It coincides with the strategic interest of France, already identified over previous years."

The relations with France are now "a work in progress. So this is a golden opportunity for both sides to reset the clock," Thayer adds.

Quad, the Pacific NATO?

The submarine setback may have temporarily slowed down French interest in joining the "Quadrilupal Dialogue" or "Quad" between the US, Australia, India and Japan.

Like Aukus, the Quad is rooted in distrust against China and the idea to create a platform to counter Beijing's influence.

France did take part in some of the Quad's joint naval exercises, but its participation seemed to have diminished after the submarine debacle. Recent high-level visits by French military to the US and the new government in Australia may change all that.

Albanese's first action was to travel to Japan the day after he was elected to attend the Quad's 4th Summit on 24 May, where he met with US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On a bilateral level, Washington is already partnering with Tokyo to monitor Chinese naval activity, and is particularly concerned about movement around the disputed territory that Japan calls the Senkaku islands and Beijing the Diaoyu islands.

China mocks the Quad as an attempt to create a "Pacific NATO" that is doomed to fail.

Its success, say Yao Zeyu and Zhang Tengjun, fellows with the Department for Asia-Pacific Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, hinges upon India.

"India will not blindly follow the US," they said in an opinion piece for the Global Times.

Chinese suspicions

The growing suspicions on both sides seem to feed on each other.

A day after the end of the Quad meeting, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi started a high-profile tour to eight Pacific Island nations (Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste) starting with the Solomon Islands.

It's the first visit of a high-level Chinese leader to the tiny island group after Beijing on 19 April announced a "security agreement" with the Solomon Islands – to the utter horror of Australia and the US.

A copy of a draft version of the agreement, seen by Anna Powles, a security studies specialist with New Zealand's Massey University, who published it on Twitter, sent shock waves across the region.

Military personnel

According to Article 1 of the agreement, Solomon Islands "may request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to assist in maintaining social order".

"The fact that we found out [about the China-SI security pact] by Twitter constitutes a failure by our intelligence and diplomatic services," says Thayer.

"It happened in an area where we lose face for the US, because this is supposed to be our patch."

As a direct result of China's growing presence (Beijing already sent in a small police force to the SI after anti-Chinese riots in Chinatown) and Canberra's intelligence failure, the US announced that it will upgrade its diplomatic presence to embassy level.

But the Solomon Islands deal is just the tip of the iceberg. China is also holding talks with Kiribati on a similar deal, and on 20 May closed a deal with Vanuatu to revamp the international airport in Luganville, a key US military base during the second world war.

'Development vision'

But the crown on China's efforts may be the "China-Pacific Islands Common Development Vision," a treaty meant to be signed between Beijing and ten Pacific states, and to be signed on 30 March in Fiji, where Wang Yi will represent China.

A draft of the "Vision" document foresees the "strengthening of exchanges in the fields of traditional and non-traditional security" and expand "law enforcement cooperation" and the "protection of national security".

The treaty would also provide for a free trade zone, facilitate "two-way investments," and address global concerns such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.

But Beijing's initiative has set off alarm bells across the Pacific.

Australia rushed to counter the move by sending its own Foreign Minister Penny Wong to Fiji to shore up support in the Pacific.

In Fiji, speaking at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Wong said it was up to each island nation to decide "what partnerships they formed and what agreements they signed," but urged them to consider the benefits of sticking with Australia.

According to Thayer, Canberra is considering million-dollar aid to help Pacific islands cope with the consequences of climate change. And some 3,000 Pacific Islanders will be given a chance, through a lottery, to come and work in Australia to "earn money and send it back home".

"These are things China can't offer. China isn't going to take workers from the Pacific islands and bring them to China to work, they are not going to give them visas to settle there permanently.

"So the contest has begun," he says.