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France snubs China with its Indo-Pacific forum

As France prepares to roll out the red carpet in Paris next month for a forum where EU ministers will meet 30 Indo-Pacific foreign ministers, the absence of China will be all too conspicuous.

France’s guest list for the event on February 22 runs from regional heavyweights like Japan, India and South Korea through to archipelagos like Comoros and Micronesia, but Beijing isn’t there.

The event will focus on “the challenges security and defence, digital issues and connectivity, in the context of the ‘Global Gateway’ initiative on global infrastructures, as well as global issues,” according to the French government’s outline of its EU priorities at the start of the year. Global Gateway is the name given to the EU’s aspirations of matching Beijing massive Belt and Road Initiative — a network of strategically crucial infrastructure systems connecting China to Western economies.

French President Emmanuel Macron has engaged in mixed messaging on China. Late in 2020, for example, he was one of the main EU leaders pushing to land a landmark trade deal despite deep international concerns about Beijing’s human rights records. He is also expected to dispatch a junior minister to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics next week, defying Washington’s call for a diplomatic boycott. In the geostrategic realm, by contrast, Macron has been looking to push the EU toward an Indo-Pacific policy that acts as a counterweight to China’s rising might.

France, as current holder of the rotating six-month presidency of the Council of the EU, is also pushing the bloc toward greater “strategic autonomy,” which is supposed to reduce dependence on Chinese manufactured goods in sectors ranging from health care to engineering.

Like China, the U.S. didn’t receive an invitation.

Perhaps surprisingly, France is extending an olive branch to Australia, despite the recent diplomatic fallout over the AUKUS deal, in which Canberra ditched a French submarine contract in exchange for American and British offers.

France has offered few details about the planned meeting. But in the wake of the AUKUS saga, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spelled out the way France looked at the potential problems with the rise of China.

“To fully assume the competition with China, whose increasing military power, hegemonic aims and growing aggressiveness we see, including if necessary by military means, we want for our part to work on the construction of an alternative model to the Chinese model, fully respecting the sovereignty of our partners, with all the actors and countries of the Indo-Pacific,” he told the National Assembly in October. “It is a question of countering China’s strategy, which is often based on a façade of multilateralism and consists of trapping each of the states in this region in an asymmetrical face-off.”

Paris is keen to engage countries that have been economically dependent on China in recent years. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Djibouti are on the guest list, according to diplomatic notes seen by POLITICO. All of them, according to one diplomat briefed on the meeting, are “at risk of, if not already, falling in China’s debt trap” under the Belt and Road Initiative, a charge Beijing repeatedly rejects. 

The EU launched its Global Gateway scheme late last year to promote sustainable infrastructure as an alternative to what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called “dependencies” on China. A second diplomat expected concrete projects to be announced at around the time of the Paris event.

In that vein, France is also inviting a number of island states — the Seychelles, Mauritius, Comoros, Samoa, Fiji, Micronesia and Maldives. This comes as China ups its game around island states in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Last month, during a visit to the Maldives, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested setting up a new forum between China and island nations in the Indian Ocean to “join forces and develop together.”

“The most important question is whether it is mostly a symbolic event or a concrete one,” said Antoine Bondaz, a specialist on French-Chinese relations at Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris-based think tank. “What is at stake is for the EU to be a credible partner? It is no longer about agreeing that Europe needs a strategy, but about implementing some key initiatives we are lacking so far.”

Another key topic is China’s behavior in the South China Sea. 

With the exception of junta-run Myanmar, all countries within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc will be invited. They range from West-friendly Singapore and Thailand to those closer to Beijing, such as Cambodia and Laos.

The whole ASEAN bloc has been arduously negotiating a “code of conduct” with Beijing for years over the South China Sea, where Beijing is expanding its military presence and territorial claims.  

France has already used recent diplomatic events, such as the foreign and defense ministers’ meeting with their Japanese counterparts last week, to focus on the topic. The Japanese and French ministers “said they would ensure that the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea being discussed between China and ASEAN complies with UNCLOS [​​United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] and does not call into question the rights and the interests of any third party in the South China Sea.”

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