French ministers head to Indo-Pacific, Australia in diplomatic push

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s defence and foreign ministers travel to the Indo-Pacific next week as part of a diplomatic offensive to strengthen political and military ties, and rebuild its relationship with key partner Australia.

France, with overseas territories in the Pacific and Indian Ocean and 7,000 troops stationed there, considers itself an Indo-Pacific power.

The loss of a major submarine deal with Australia in 2021 forced it rethink its strategy amid ongoing regional tensions with China in the disputed South China Sea.

Paris has since struck arms and security deals with several powers, including India, Malaysia and Indonesia as well as reinforcing ties with Japan.

It aims to complete a new regional strategy plan for the start of 2024 that would encompass everything from security to culture, climate and define efforts by specific zones, diplomats said.

Underscoring those efforts, Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu will host in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia between Dec. 4-8 the South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting, the first time it has hosted the format since it was created in 2013.

“This is an important moment for us because it highlights the legitimacy of our presence in the Pacific,” said a French diplomatic source briefing reporters ahead of the visits.

The meeting will seek to enhance security and defence coordination between the countries in the region alongside Britain, the United States and Japan which attend as observers.

Prior to that, Lecornu will be in the Philippines, where he is expected to sign a letter of intent on defence cooperation with a view to sealing concrete defence deals at a later stage, diplomats said.

Paris, which is vying with South Korea and Spain for the sale of submarines to Manila, sees the election of President Ferdinand Marcos as an opportunity to develop their partnership.


France has historically supported Manila’s stance in the territorial dispute between Philippines and China over the South China, which has ratcheted up this year as Manila has increasingly complained about Beijing’s “aggressive” behaviour in the strategic waterway.

Lecornu will also head to Malaysia where a letter of intent is due to be signed, although French officials have declined to give details.

Malaysia has been looking to upgrade or replace several aging military assets, with the government allocating 19.7 billion ringgit ($4.23 billion) to the defence ministry under its budget for 2024, an 11% increase from this year’s funding.

The ministry in October said it would look to use the funding for new purchases and improvements, including refurbishing its two French-made, Scorpene-class submarines.

While it has diversified its ties across the Pacific, France has also worked on rebuilding its partnership with Australia.

Dating back to 2016, it was considered the cornerstone of its Indo-Pacific policy until Canberra pulled out of a multi-billion dollar submarine and strategic defence accord two years ago.

Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna will head there on Dec. 4-5, the first visit by a French foreign minister since 2019 as the two sides look to definitively turn the page and progress on topics ranging from climate change to culture and defence.

“It’s the culmination of 18 months of work,” the diplomatic source said.

(Additional reporting by Karen Lerna in Manila and Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Sandra Maler)