France’s Foray into the Indo-Pacific and its Relevance for India
Prof Rajaram Panda

The Indo-Pacific has suddenly emerged as a theatre of great powers contestation by major stakeholders. Economic and security interests in this construct have driven the stakeholders to seek institutional mechanism with like-minded stakeholders as members to discuss and manage issues impinging their national interests. Institutional structures such as Quad and Aukus, and many at regional and bilateral levels have mushroomed. Each has its own priority focus areas, some complementing and some overlapping and therefore reaching consensus has always remained a herculean task.

Among the leading major stakeholders are the US, Japan, India, China, Australia and UK. There are smaller powers at the periphery having equal important role. The latest to join this group of nations seeking to have a say in the Pacific matters is France.

Why France Now?

France’s rekindled interest in the Pacific is driven by three main factors. First, France has territories – New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna – 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] These facts are driving France for its Pacific engagement, which is pragmatic from France’s point of view.

Because of its stepped-up interest, in October 2020 France appointed Christophe Penot as its first ambassador for the Indo-Pacific. Subsequently, France released an updated version of its Indo-Pacific strategy in February 2022 in which it pledged to strengthen relations with Pacific islands. Subsequently, France hosted a ministerial forum for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific during its presidency of the European Union Council.

As in other theatres of the world where China has made penetration in the economic and security arenas, the Pacific islands have also emerged as targets of China’s sphere of influence because of their strategic locations. No wonder, China’s rise in the region is a concern for France and other traditional powers. However, France does realise that annoying China on any issue would not be a desirable option as China is not yet a threat but only a challenge and needs to be managed. This author has examined earlier the interests of India and China in earlier separate posts.[2] Now let us examine how France is positioned on Pacific matters and what that drives France to be engaged in Pacific matters.

Theoretical Explanation

In October 2021, the French Institute for Strategic Research, an affiliate of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, issued a report that details Chinese influence operations overseas. The report argued that Beijing has entered a “Machiavellian moment” and enjoys being feared than loved.[3] It may be useful to elaborate what the report meant by using the term “Machiavellian moment”.

Before China begun to be perceived as a threatening power because of its assertiveness on a host of bilateral and regional issues, the report argues, China had earlier sought to be loved than feared and the strategy it choose was to seduce in order to project a positive image of itself to the world and thus arouse admiration. Though China has not relinquished its style of seducing, there has been a metamorphosis in its style as prescribed by the Communist Party. And this means the use of coercion, threats and intimidation as means to meet its end.

What are then the Interests of France?

As mentioned, France has its own interests for an inclusive Indo-Pacific and does not wish to get entangled in the US-China rivalry, which is why it finds multilateralism as a more viable option. At the same time, it wants to secure its interests by promoting strong cooperation with the US, especially in the maritime sphere. For this reason, French Navy is engaging with the US Navy and has dispatched liaison officers to the US Indo-Pacific Command and participated with the US-led exercises including SEACAT in Singapore and Sama-Sama in the Philippines between 2020 and 2021. France’s limitation is that it is not a member of the Quad grouping consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia.

At the same time, annoying China is not an option for France by getting aligned with fronts that are perceived to have been designed to contain China. Therefore, French Joint Commander for Asia-Pacific maintains a working relationship with the Chinese counterpart. There are other interests for France that it needs to protect. For example, the undersea fibre optic cable between China and Sydney, touted as the digital gateway to Asia, was initially proposed by Huawei to run via French Polynesia and end in Shanghai. Though overlooking China was not a desirable option, it did not come through. Now the cable shall pass via New Zealand in a Japanese-proposed plan. This calls for pragmatic diplomacy vis-a-vis China as trade and economic issues are factored in. China is the largest export destination for New Caledonia for products such as iron, steel and nickel, and French Polynesia for pearls. Promoting tourism from China is another economic incentive for these French territories.[4]

French territories are also wary of the potential Chinese debt trap and therefore cautious about China’s economic activities. Attempts by China to build military facilities are thwarted by the French Pacific territories. The failure of the Chinese HNA Tourism Company Ltd to set up promised hotel project in the French Polynesia sent a negative signal of China’s intentions.

Despite being wary of China’s inroads into the Pacific, China does not seem to attach so much importance to France as it does to other traditional powers such as the US, Australia and Japan. China may be rejoicing that the AUKUS deal between Australia, the UK and US on nuclear submarines caused a rift in France-Australia relations but even Chinese scholars have paid little attention on France’s Pacific interests, though some military personnel see that France can be a future candidate for the QUAD.

France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

French President Emmanuel Macron is aware that Polynesia has huge strategic relevance for France. Its massive EEZ plays a key role in France’s Indo-Pacific policy. France’s assets in the region are huge: 9 million square kilometers of EEZ at sea, with the three French territories –New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and Polynesia. In July 2021, after his first mandate Macron visited French Polynesia for the first time and was greeted on his arrival at Papeete, the capital of Polynesia, on 25 July. Many domestic political questions such as health crisis linked to Covid-19, the underestimated effects of the consequences of nuclear tests, the inscription of the Marquesas Island on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and the fight against the effects of climate change were discussed.

But what attracted the world’s attention was the international dimension of his visit. Macron’s visit was in response to China’s increasing influence in the Pacific region and to clarify to the world that he has a multimodal policy to craft his government’s Indo-Pacific strategy that was officially adopted in May 2018.[5] Like other Pacific nations, the maritime dimension has been the key driver in France’s Indo-Pacific strategy as China’s relentless surge in expanding maritime footprint has been shaping other Pacific nation’s maritime and maritime strategy. Therefore containing China has emerged the long-term objective of most Pacific nations.

Macron’s visit to Polynesia in July 2021 was therefore a clear demonstration of articulating France’s Indo-Pacific strategy that contained diplomatic, cultural, economic and military dimensions. This included the exercise of national sovereignty in the French Indo-Pacific collectivises (FIPC), including Reunion Island, Mayotte, French Southern and Arctic Lands, Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Macron’s visit legitimised France’s presence in this vast region and endorsed the France’s Indo-Pacific doctrine.

Strategic Relevance of South Pacific

The South Pacific represents only 0.1 percent of the world’s population but accounts for 6.7 per cent of the votes at the UN and 40 per cent of the international maritime space. Such importance of the Pacific islands inevitably arouses interests by many stakeholders and defines their own framework in establishing their respective relations that suits their national interests. Countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and even India have defined their own respective strategies to engage with the Pacific island nations.

Top leaders from some important countries such as China, Australia, Japan, India, the US, etc have visited the Pacific islands in recent times to demonstrate their interests in the Pacific island matters. Macron again visited Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea (PNG) on 27-28 July 2023 to give shape to France’s strategic vision for the region.[6]

For record, Vanuatu is a former Anglo-French condominium that gained independence in 1980. Papua New Guinea is the region’s heavyweight with a population of 17 million and Macron’s visit was the first by a French President. Macron aimed to give substance to his Indo-Pacific strategy, which had remained as a talking point but without any substantive move. Macron aimed to correct this misperception through offer of development aid, humanitarian support and connect with the French-speaking world. Besides, France is also strengthening its regional influence by increasing its commitments to the Pacific Islands Forum by joining the South Pacific Defence Ministers Club, deploying military assets and pushing for greater EU involvement in the region. This is not enough as French interests in the Pacific affairs remain low key compared with other stakeholders.

Critics of Macron

There are also some critics of Macron who contest his sudden love for the Pacific island territories. Writing for South China Morning Post, Alex Lo accuses Macron of exploiting New Caledonia’s nickel deposits as the EU fights Indonesia’s export ban and calls his Indo-Pacific policy as France’s “new imperialism in the South Pacific”.[7] Alex Lo finds fault in Macron’s policy with the argument that it is strange that the coloniser is telling the colonised about the dangers of foreign imperialism, thereby debunking the argument of controlling growing Chinese influence. Interestingly, the EU has been arm-twisting Indonesia which is also believed to possess some of the world’s richest mineral deposits, to provide nickel supplies in raw form rather than add value to its production by processing deposits in the country. Given the past experience in history when European colonial powers exploited many countries that were colonised, this comparison cannot be dismissed as untruth. At the same time, the argument of arresting China’s growing influence cannot be dismissed either.

Positioning India

How does France’s Indo-Pacific policy affect India’s outreach to the Pacific island nations? As two important maritime nations, their policies complement each other as peace and rules-based orders at sea are sine qua non for world’s economic future. Securing maritime commerce is paramount for maritime nations. Seven of France’s 13 overseas territories are in the Indo-Pacific. For example, the French territory of Clipperton Island in the north Pacific provides France with an EEZ the size of Sweden.[8] As the 1.6 million citizens in French territories feel threatened by China, Macron has chosen to play the role of a balancer rather than creating a situation where big powers such as the US and China are locked in rivalry.

Since both India and France share similar perceptions about their policies towards the Pacific Islands, both can provide an alternative development model that is different from China’s predatory practices. Focus areas could be infrastructure development, improving healthcare and IT. India also has a sizable number of Indian diaspora in nations like Fiji and Vanuatu, which can be leveraged. Given the close defence ties that India and France maintain at bilateral level, cooperation in the regional security can be the logical extension. Both thus find themselves in a win-win situation.


[1]Denghua Zhang Eric Frecon, “The China Factor in France’s growing engagement in the ‘Peaceful sea’”, 25 July 2022,
[2]See, Rajaram Panda, “India’s foray into the Pacific”, 29 May 2023,, and Rajaram Panda. “China’s Security Pact with the Solomon Islands Roils the Region”, Global Asia, vol. 17, no. 2, June 2022, pp. 65-72,
[3]Paul Charon and Jean-Baptioste Jeangene Vilmer, “Chinese influence operations: A Machiavellian Moment”, 28 September 2021,
[4]Nice Maclellan, “Stable, Democratic and Western: China and French Colonialism in the Pacific”, China Alternative, pp. 197-231,
[5]Paco Milhiet, “French Polynesia and France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy”, 10 May 2022,
[6]Nathalie Guibert, “France seeks greater influence in the Indo-Pacific region”, 27 July 2023,
[7]Alex Lo, “Emmanuel Macron and the new imperialism in the South Pacific”, 28 July 2023,
[8] “Prolific in the Pacific”, Times of India, editorial, 29 July 2023,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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