How Australia can work with France in the western Indian Ocean

The western Indian Ocean—home to the island states of Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles and Comoros, as well as the French territories of La Reunion and Mayotte—occupies little space in Canberra’s strategic imagination. But it still has the potential to affect Australia’s strategic interests. In a new report by the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D), we identify France as a critical partner for Australia to multiply its impact in the far western fringe of the Indo-Pacific.

Australian interests are engaged in this subregion in important ways. It is a source of maritime insecurity, including transnational crime, and is an arena for strategic competition in which the US, India, China and Russia are all active players. While the balance of power in the western Indian Ocean has been favourable, or at least benign, to Australian interests for a long time, growing Chinese influence and the potential for changes to the status of Diego Garcia (which hosts a US military base) might present strategic risks for Australia to manage. Moreover, with Australia hosting the Indian Ocean Conference for the first time in 2024, as well as pursuing bids to host COP31 in 2026 and to secure a UN Security Council seat in 2029–30, it’s important that Canberra actively build deeper relations with a broad range of small island developing states.

Australia is a generally well-regarded actor in the western Indian Ocean. However, its modest presence and contribution in the subregion seem conspicuous to island states that view Australia as a natural Indian Ocean partner. They see Australia’s recent step-up in the Pacific and they still remember—and cite—Australia’s aid contributions in the lead-up to its last UN Security Council term (2013–2015).

But the reality is that Australia can’t substantially boost its presence or engagement in this distant part of the world right now—not with the fiscal pressures it faces at home and the uncertain strategic environment it’s navigating in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

That’s where partnerships become even more important.

Australia should see France’s (and the EU’s) significant presence in the western Indian Ocean as an opportunity to boost its own influence on shared interests and capabilities. As well as its overseas local territories of Reunion and Mayotte, France has resident missions in Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles and Comoros. In 2020, it contributed about $695 million in official development assistance. France also maintains a resident military presence of 2,000 personnel, five naval units and four aircraft. Australia, meanwhile, has just one small post in Mauritius covering the entire subregion, equipped with only a small direct aid budget.

There are five broad areas where collaboration with France in the western Indian Ocean could help advance both countries’ strategic interests and make a positive contribution to Indo-Pacific stability.

First is playing an active role in fostering Indian Ocean and Pacific island connections. Covering both main working languages (English and French) of the two regions, Australia and France are well placed to help facilitate dialogue and build capacity to confront the challenges small island states face. As Rory Medcalf has noted, an ‘oceans forum’ could join up these two maritime regions on ‘issues such as fisheries management, health security, infrastructure, climate change and the common problem of how to manage pressures from great powers’.

Second is strengthening Indian Ocean regional architecture. As much as possible, Australia should seek to channel greater coordination with France through existing regional institutions, especially the Indian Ocean Rim Association. This will help boost the association’s centrality and generate broader regional participation. Australia should also consider formalising its relationship with the Indian Ocean Commission by becoming an observer. This would boost Australia’s status as a partner to the group and be a clear signal to France of Australia’s intent to contribute practically to the region.

Third, Australia should consider making modest strategic contributions to French-led and EU-led development programs, especially those focused on maritime security and safety. Australia has previously provided this kind of support in the subregion through the Australian Maritime Safety Agency. So, Canberra could consider how AMSA or the Australian Transport Safety Bureau could make niche contributions to capacity building by working with French counterparts.

Maritime domain awareness could also be a useful area for collaboration. France and the EU are already significant contributors to improving maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean (especially through the CRIMARIO II initiative). One possible avenue could be to work together to enhance the fusion centres in the western Indian Ocean: the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Center, based in Madagascar, and the Regional Operations Coordination Center, based in Seychelles. In particular, Australia should consider how its experience with the Pacific Fusion Centre could be shared with Indian Ocean counterparts.

Fourth, given the significant transnational crime issues in the western Indian Ocean, especially drug trafficking and illegal fishing, it is important to build the law enforcement capacity of developing states with large exclusive economic zones. The Australian Border Force and Australian Federal Police, working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, could consider how they could work with French counterparts to enhance the ability of western Indian Ocean states to identify and prosecute transnational crime.

Finally, disinformation is a significant concern in the western Indian Ocean island states. There have been several documented instances in recent years, and the EU already supports training and capacity-building aimed at countering disinformation in the subregion. Australia could explore opportunities to work with France, the EU, civil society and local and international media to complement these efforts, focusing on raising awareness of disinformation and developing skills to recognise and counter it.

Strategic contributions to French- and EU-led initiatives would increase Australia’s influence. They would also create greater diversity in Australia’s key Indian Ocean partnerships beyond India—which is important given concerns in some parts of the region about New Delhi’s influence.

Australia’s support would benefit France, too. Australia can convey aligned messaging with a different voice, without the historical baggage that France and others (like the UK and US) carry. And in complex times, aligning messages and efforts has never been more important.