Foreign policy white paper 2017: overlooking a powerful Western neighbour
8 Dec 2017|

Australia’s 2017 white paper on foreign policy is necessarily a sweeping ranking of priorities and partners. Not unexpectedly, the paper renews our commitment to our major partner, the United States, while foreshadowing a nuanced relationship with China, about which there has been much academic discussion.

The paper makes precious little mention, however, of France, our closest eastern neighbour through its territory, New Caledonia. France’s Pacific territory bookends the entire South Pacific—with New Caledonia at the western end off Queensland, and uninhabited Clipperton Island to the far east just off the Mexican coast—and occupies the strategic centre, at French Polynesia and the Territory of Wallis and Futuna. France also maintains naval and air assets and nearly 3,000 military personnel in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

In the way of these types of analyses, French strategic experts will undoubtedly play the game of ‘spot the references to France’ in this rare statement of Australian foreign policy objectives. In that they’ll be disappointed. There are just four specific mentions of ‘France’. Two of them are in the glossary (listing members of the G20 and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action relating to Iran’s nuclear program, pp. 118 and 119). Of the remaining two substantive references, the first (p. 81) identifies France as one of two key EU member states (the other is Germany) after the United Kingdom with which Australia will strengthen bilateral relationships on global economic governance. The other at least appears in the Pacific chapter (p. 103), but only notes joint maritime surveillance and disaster management activities with the US and New Zealand under the 1992 FRANZ arrangement.

While there are many general references to ‘working with [unspecified] others’ in the document (for example, over North Korea (p. 4) and on counter-terrorism (p. 7)) and one to working with ‘Pacific partners’ (p. 103), it can’t be assumed that France is among their number. It’s to be hoped that France isn’t covered by the reference in the Pacific chapter to engaging ‘the Pacific’s outside partners’ (p. 100), given France’s unique status as a Western partner with a substantial resident sovereign status in the South Pacific.

Why are these frugal references to France disappointing?

First, because France sees its relationship with Australia as entering a new ‘strategic partnership’ phase, and Australia itself signed on to an ‘enhanced strategic partnership‘ with France earlier this year. So far, the content of those intentions is less than clear, and the white paper doesn’t elaborate.

Second, Australia only last year granted its largest defence contract ever—$53 billion to construct 12 Shortfin Barracuda submarines—to France. It would be logical to extract some kind of quid pro quo in terms of, say, closer defence collaboration, a refreshed approach by France to concluding an EU free trade agreement with Australia, or greater scientific and technical collaboration. But there’s no such mention.

Third, France and Australia are facing the same challenges in the South Pacific region, and it isn’t unreasonable to assume that we would be looking at new ways to work with France to manage them.

A relevant side issue is the paper’s emphasis on the ‘Indo-Pacific’. This notion minimises Australia’s separate strategic reaches into the Pacific in the east, Asia-Pacific in the north, and the Indian Ocean to the west.   It thereby conceptually diminishes relative Australian strategic influence in the Pacific at a time when the most dramatic geostrategic power shifts are occurring there. Australia, by its geography and continental status, is the only country to be endowed with such an enviable triple-headed reach. France, as a western ally which shares, through its overseas territories, two of those spheres of interest, in the Indian and Pacific oceans, would seem a logical partner.

The white paper’s relegation of France to the status of an important but primarily European power in Australia’s global efforts, and just a longstanding FRANZ partner in the South Pacific, undervalues the potential of a partnership with a well-resourced power with similar interests in the two oceans at a time of change.

Finally, the few references to France don’t seem to match with the paper’s overall prioritisation of climate change and sustainable development, key focal points in the immediate Pacific neighbourhood and areas in which France, through its technological expertise deriving from its research centres in the region, is well placed to contribute.