France to host 1st ministerial meeting on Indo-Pacific, eyes ‘leading role’
China, US not invited, shows ambitions to be ‘independent voice, leading role’
Published: Feb 21, 2022 10:52 PM
France Photo:IC

France Photo:IC

France is scheduled to host the first European ministerial meeting on the Indo-Pacific on Tuesday, rolling out the red carpet for foreign ministers of EU member states and some 30 countries in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as representatives of European institutions and the main regional organizations. However, China and the US have not been invited.

Chinese observers on Monday said the absence of Beijing and Washington from the forum showed that France and the EU are looking at underscoring their independent voices on Indo-Pacific regional affairs as stakeholders through the event, and desire to play a constructive role in building a new balance in the region. 

France's guest list for the event runs from regional heavyweights like Japan, India and South Korea through to archipelagos like Comoros and Micronesia, as well as the ASEAN bloc. 

According to the official release about the forum, the Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific will be an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the links between EU countries and those of the Indo-Pacific. This will thus be a European cooperation model, based on multilateralism and the rule of law, implementing the principles of sustainability, openness and reciprocity.

The forum will begin with a plenary session, co-chaired by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles, where several foreign ministers from the Indo-Pacific region will speak including Prak Sokhonn of Cambodia, who chairs ASEAN, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi of Indonesia who chairs the G20, and Japan's Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, as well as the executive vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans.

Three roundtables will follow, with focal points on the Global Gateway strategy, on global issues such as climate, biodiversity and health, and on security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, according to the official site. 

The Global Gateway is an extension of the 2018 Europe-Asia connectivity strategy aimed at proposing international opportunities to develop connections in the areas of digital technology, energy and transport, and at bolstering health systems, education and research throughout the world, which has been seen by US media, with obviously biased views, as the "EU's aspirations of matching Beijing's massive Belt and Road Initiative."

US political outlet Politico ran a piece on January 27, hyping that France 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, citing diplomatic notes seen by Politico. All of them, according to one diplomat briefed on the meeting, are "at risk of, if not already, falling into China's debt trap" under the Belt and Road Initiative, the report claimed.

However, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, disagreed with such narrow-minded voices, saying that it is a trap set up by the US and some Western countries with a Cold War mentality, and it is not in line with China's interests in the process of implementing the initiative.

China and the EU can complement one another to promote connectivity among countries and sustainable global development, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in December 2021, after the European Commission unveiled the Global Gateway - a plan to invest 300 billion euros ($340 billion) globally by 2027 in infrastructure, digital and climate projects.

Unlike the US, which is creating conflicts with China using the name of competition, France's interests are not necessarily identical with the US' ones, and France has a tradition of opposing US hegemony, Chinese observers pointed out. Not inviting the US to the forum serves as the latest example. 

China welcomes healthy competition between powers, which would benefit the world, Li said, noting that "we must oppose the US type."

But there will be a big question mark as to what extent the Global Gateway strategy could attract Pacific island countries and if France could achieve its goal of playing a leading role in the region, especially after the US, UK and Australia formed the AUKUS alliance, according to Yu Lei, chief research fellow at the Research Center for Pacific Island Countries of Liaocheng University in East China's Shandong Province.

France's colonization history, its nuclear test record and political interference before in the region would cause a negative effect, and above all, the US and Australia would not like the idea of having France set up a separate power in the region, Yu told the Global Times on Monday. 

For example, France got in the recent diplomatic fallout over the AUKUS deal, in which Australia ditched a French submarine contract in exchange for American and British offers. 

Chinese analysts also noted that the French version of "pivot to the Indo-Pacific" to create a more complicated balance in the region should be viewed objectively, which is not an entirely bad news for China. However, France's geopolitical move must not offend China's sovereignty and legitimate interests of development and security, especially over the Taiwan question, which is a completely China's domestic affair.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France' s foreign minister, told the Nikkei Asia on Sunday in a written interview that the Taiwan Strait is essential for the security of the Indo-Pacific region, and that France is "very keen to act to prevent any conflict."

The minister's remarks came after a group of French parliamentarians visited the island of Taiwan in December 2021, which Chinese mainland analysts viewed as an insignificant stunt by trivial French politicians to fool the secessionists in the island, and attract attention for political gains.

They noted that the French government has maintained an overall rational China policy and held a positive and pragmatic attitude toward the Taiwan question. French President Emmanuel Macron openly opposed the White House's so-called political boycott against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games and pledged full support for the just-concluded event.