Sacré bleu! L’alliance essentielle?
17 Feb 2014|

Paratroopers from France's 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment land at Timbuktu Airport, Mali to conduct an evaluation of the facility which was damaged by retreating insurgents. France's operations in Africa provide potential learning opportunities for Australia.

At the end of January, ASPI hosted a 1.5 track defence and industry dialogue between Australian and French defence officials and think-tank and industry representatives. Why France and why now? Only the most one-eyed of Australia’s ‘Asia only’ foreign policy Red Guard could have failed to notice France’s remarkable re-emergence as a global strategic player. On Syria, France’s socialist President François Hollande out-muscled wobbly Washington and would have been prepared to launch strikes after Assad’s chemical weapons atrocities. France was a leading force in NATO’s action in Libya; intervened decisively in Mali (with a little help from Entente Frugale ally Britain); has resisted cutting defence capabilities too deeply, and is looking to build closer strategic ties with a slew of countries, from India and Japan to China.

In the Pacific, France’s position has gone full circle from the unhappy nuclear-testing, insurgency fighting 1980s to a point where the French territories are now the model of stability and the envy of the region. France is a net contributor to Pacific Island security and one of very few countries prepared to do more to support more regional cooperation.

In many respects French defence policy showcases what Australia would like more of: highly capable deployable forces and a willingness to use them; a shrinking but sustainable industry base; growing credibility and respect in Washington and bipartisan popular support for a strong military. France has more than its share of economic woes, but in terms of strategic policy settings it has a good hand. That’s a good basis to think about closer cooperation with Australia.

In 2013 both countries produced defence white papers. (France’s is here.) We’re among a relatively small group of countries that take these policy statements seriously (more or less). It’s interesting to note the similarities and differences between the two statements. Both papers start with the proposition that neither Australia nor France faces a credible external conventional threat, but both judge that the wider strategic environment is less stable, becoming more competitive and that the level of risk is rising. Both white papers see the Indian Ocean region as becoming of greater strategic interest, identify a higher priority for cyber security, stress a stronger national security framework for defence and identify the need for savings and reform. At base the white papers set out a similar concept for the use of military forces which are joint, deployable and able to operate at a range of conflict levels on their own, although there are differences of scale in the size of forces planned for deployment.

As for differences, the French White Paper has a much sharper focus on Africa and the Middle East—geography still matters. Arguably it has a more mature assessment of China: it worries about the growth of ‘aggressive nationalism’ and has a more candid assessment of Chinese strengths and weaknesses than one reads in the Australian White Paper. On cyber security, the French paper put more emphasis on cyber within its defence framework, whereas Australia’s 2013 paper took tentative steps in the opposite direction by renaming the Defence Signals Directorate the Australian Signals Directorate.

How might Australia and France cooperate more closely on defence? Anthony Bergin made a number of suggestions in his recent post. I’ll add to his list by suggesting the following. First, the French White Paper worries about a lack of critical mass in analytic capability on strategy and proposes ‘reciprocal openness’ with friends and allies to compensate. Australia should sign up for that exchange. Our strategic perspectives are different enough to challenge group-think and, with a practical focus, should strengthen cooperation. Second, in military-to-military cooperation we should look to do more on Indian Ocean security, look to learn from French experience of autonomous joint operations in Africa, and share lessons on amphibious deployability.

In the Pacific, Australia needs to multilateralise maritime surveillance activities to build a more effective surveillance regime as the Pacific Patrol Boat capability comes to the end of its life. On defence reform more generally, the French make much of the ‘pooling and sharing’ concept in a NATO context. If there’s a practical future for Australian cooperation with NATO after Afghanistan, it might be in looking to see how we can ‘pool and share’ in areas of overlapping interest. Australian and French efforts on defence reform can only be helped by closer cooperation.

Overall, there’s good reason for Australia and France to look at options for closer defence and security cooperation. We’re like-minded countries that want to be serious players in international security. An Australian policy approach that understands our interests are global and seeks to build networks of consequential strategic actors will find practical benefits in building a Canberra-Paris nexus. Remembering that the business of strategy is to look to the future, a modernised French-Australian defence relationship would be a fitting product from the next four years of First World War centenary commemorative events.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Photo credit to Ministère de la Dèfense.