A French accent to the European voice at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue

Three European nations – those referred to as ‘the big three’ in the corridors of the EU – spoke for Europe at the recent 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue. The UK sent the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, and Director-General, Security Policy. Germany sent their Parliamentary State Secretary for Defence. The most significant showing was France’s  Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who used a speech on Emerging Risks to Global and Asia-Pacific Security to communicate the intention of France, representing Europe more broadly, to step up its involvement in Asia-Pacific security.

France’s rationale was placed in the context of the rising economic importance of the region, the US ‘pivot’, and the inter-dependence of European and Asian security. France’s historical involvement and ongoing ‘territorial and military presence’ were noted to remind the audience that France had never left the region. Then the high rhetorical tone was brought down to earth by an honest acknowledgement that all this had been said before, but now it was “… high time to transform words into action“.

What kind of action does the Minister have in mind? I found three main lines of note:

  1. On territorial disputes, France prefers to offer reminders on the principles of international Law, rather than come between the parties with an offer of diplomatic solutions. This style was reflected in a couple of courteously oblique references to the active dispute in the South China Sea.
  2. Le Drien declared that “…today, we, the French, are willing to participate in establishing a regional security structure in South-East Asia“. No details were offered, but this could be one to watch.
  3. The role of France and Europe in Asian security were sketched in contrast to that of the US: “France is very pleased that the United-States have renewed their commitment to ensuring stability of the region through a close partnership with their allies and the countries of the region. But security and stability can be maintained in a collective way only. Because Asia’s security is also the key to Europe’s security and to global prosperity; we must establish this security structure together, in a way that is far from any out of date “containment” concept. Together, we must establish foundations for this, which will necessarily root in the great principles governing international security. ” Not is Europe beyond rusty old ideas like ‘containment’, it is (in France’s view) also a more attractive partner for its ‘neutrality’: “In this part of the world, which is characterised by a complex network of bi- and multilateral relations, and crossed by the influence strategies of the great powers, my country is intending, more than ever, to be a natural political partner, free from any dispute with the States of the region.”

Le Drien did outline some goals regarding action in the Asia/Pacific:

– resolutely carry on with counter terrorism and proliferation;

– reinforce our help and assistance to maintain free sea traffic and free access to maritime areas;

– develop our bilateral military and defence cooperation;

– promote a real cooperation between our industries, with this end in view.

As with the visit of the UK’s Prime Minister Cameron earlier this year, Le Drien placed France’s interests within the context of a wider European position. The word “Europe” was repeated eight times in his short speech: “We no longer are in a context that was formerly described by a Singapore Prime Minister as “benign neglect” by Europe toward Asia. Simultaneously, it is advisable that Asia, in turn, does not consider Europe as a secondary partner. Asia/Pacific will be an increasing commitment area for the EU and its member-states, among which France is intending to play her full role.”

It is interesting to evaluate all this alongside the recent speech by the UK’s Foreign Minister Hague, which was also presented under the auspices of the IISS in Singapore some weeks previously. Le Drein’s speech is laced with indicators of France’s role as a neutral party, with no allies in the region, offering support on a principled basis. With its contempt for containment, its emphasis on inclusiveness (“France is intending to be a fully-committed partner, with no debarment“) it can be read as a signal to China that France and a Europe under French leadership offers a potential partner on Security issues.

Like Hague, Le Drien also feels the need to acknowledge and leave behind the old colonial ghosts. Hague re-assures that “[t]oday, our leaders and our people approach Asia in a wholly different spirit to the past – with a sense of equal partnership, respect and the desire to see opportunity and development for all“. Le Drein promises that “[i]f History and a painful past sometimes drove us apart, our common interests – let me insist on this – assemble us today. Your security interests are also our security interests.”

While Hague’s speech was more specific and concrete on what the UK offers the region (e.g. support for expanded UN Security Council membership, opening new diplomatic posts, calling for suspension of EU sanctions on Burma), it may be an unfair comparison since Le Drien was speaking on a quasi academic theme. However, France’s promise of neutrality and openness may be more credible given its historical discomfort with US hegemony.

As for being the face of a more involved EU, neither could offer much of substance. In a way, the fact that they and not the EU non-foreign minister Catherine Ashton or its non-President Van Rompuy spoke in Singapore suggests why the idea of a more involved EU is probably still a distant prospect.

A comparison with the Germans view would be interesting, but I couldn’t find that speech on the IISS website.  Where and when will the third member of Europe’s ‘big three’ cast its vote on Asian security issues?

N.B. A French Language version of the Minister’s speech is also available (see France’s MoD version also), with some interesting differences from the text given on the IISS site (e.g. it speaks of how the NEXT defence white paper is not expected to omit the issue of Asia’s importance to France’s security).

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