Think Tank (4/2021)
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France as an Indo-Pacific Nation: Security and Multilateralism in Challenging Times
08 Jul 2021

The Embassy of France and RSIS co-hosted a panel webinar on “France as an Indo-Pacific Nation: Security and Multilateralism in Challenging Times” on 8 July 2021. Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Executive Deputy Chairman, RSIS, gave the opening remarks, noting that “Indo-Pacific” as a nomenclature is used more frequently today in place of the previously dominant “Asia-Pacific” construct. As major and regional powers publicised their respective narratives of the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN joined the conversation by adopting the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which reiterates the idea of an open and multilateral architecture for the region with ASEAN at its centre.

Professor Geoffrey Till, Advisor, Maritime Security Programme, RSIS, outlined three maritime challenges for stakeholders to consider: (i) Continuing maritime impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which has exacerbated regional stakeholder relations; (ii) Continuing concerns about the maintenance of good order at sea; (iii) Rise of great power, and even middle- and small-power competition in the region, aggravated by uncertainties surrounding China’s future role and intentions in the international order.

Dr Joel Ng, Research Fellow, Centre for Multilateralism Studies, RSIS, noted that the EU is seen as one of the most trusted external partners to Southeast Asia. He argued that ASEAN is a “pivotal actor” for the Indo-Pacific, making two observations: (i) Great powers will need ASEAN buy-in if they do not want to simply dictate terms to the region; and (ii) The momentum of ASEAN support will provide the vital tipping point for any regional initiative, and this is an open platform for external powers to harness.

Ambassador Marc Abensour, Ambassador of France to Singapore, emphasised that France is a resident nation of the Indo-Pacific and the first European country to come up with an Indo-Pacific strategy. French strategy in the Indo-Pacific is characterised by three key features: (i) inclusiveness based on multilateral cooperation; (ii) priority to partnership with like-minded countries and regional organisations like ASEAN, with whom France is now a development partner; (iii) synergies between French and EU Indo-Pacific strategies.

Dr Collin Koh, Research Fellow and Coordinator, United States Programme, RSIS, highlighted the significance of naval confidence-building measures like the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). CUES formalises the common practices concerning navigational safety among navies. While CUES is not applicable to maritime law enforcement agencies, it is nonetheless good to have such mechanisms which are based on longstanding international conventions.

Rear Admiral Jean-Mathieu Rey, Joint Commander, French Armed Forces in the Asia-Pacific, concluded the webinar by noting that France is the only EU member state to maintain permanent military assets in the Indo-Pacific region. He highlighted three priorities of the French Armed Forces: (i) to protect French citizens, territories, and resources; (ii) to act quickly and efficiently in the event of natural disasters through Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief missions; and (iii) to maintain a stabilising military presence in the region aimed at promoting and defending freedom of movement, at sea and in the air.

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