The visit by Minister for Armed Forces of France, Mr. Sébastien Lecornu to Malaysia on Dec. 8 and the meeting with Defence Minister Dato Seri Mohamad Hasan reflect the growing criticality of bolstering defence and security commitment and the eventual returns to both countries.
The rising footprint of France in the Indo Pacific sphere especially in ASEAN, gives added deterrent capacity and in serving as the vital cornerstone of a greater fallback option for the region, apart from the existing security apparatus and network of defence overtures from the West.
For France, the existing framework of peace and stability in the region, especially in contested zones including the South China Sea, will be strategic in its expansion of both soft and hard power capacity and in ensuring long term stability and resilience in trade, supply chain and energy and food security. In this regard, Malaysia and ASEAN remain at the forefront in ensuring these parameters are met and for that to happen, the status quo of the rules based order and adherence to international maritime law and the international law remain paramount. Joint agreement by both Ministers to uphold the sanctity of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS 1982) and stability in the Middle East underscored the strategic importance in ensuring overarching returns in defence and economic spheres to one another’s immediate area of interest.
The procurement of the GM400 Long Range Air Defence Radar for and its placement at Sarawak remains a prime strategic win, which will help bolster the capacity of surveillance and monitoring of the airspace over the critical EEZ zone which will provide higher response and support seeking capacity for Malaysia in getting the needed tactical advantage.
While Malaysia continues to progressively build up its defence and deterrent capacities, progress has been slow and lagging behind its counterparts in the region, especially in defence spending percentage in the GDP.
The real game changer and biggest short term tool of mitigation will be to align strategically with capable, trusted and reliable defence and security partners and allies. In this regard, the West remains the most trusted and reliable partner in providing the most important defence support and deterrence, with France now needing credible and strategic security partners that will be able to provide the extended bulwark of assurance in critical times and geographical zones, in a pivot away from the traditional dependence and alliance with conventional Western and European powers.
France is the first European country to announce an Indo-Pacific strategy, back in 2018, realizing the gap that needed to be addressed and in anticipating the continuous threat and challenges to the order that has been built and preserved to maintain economic and security equilibrium.
Another compelling need and normative factor for Paris to extend its extended security umbrella in encompassing the region is the fact that it remains a resident power in this part of the world.
France maintains territories across different flanks, ranging from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, from Reunion Island to New Caledonia. More than 90% of its EEZ for a total of 9 million square kilometres are located in these two oceans. In securing these territories, a huge military presence is needed, and France is currently maintaining 8,000 strong personnel in the region.
The French model of strategic autonomy in maintaining its security interests in the region has met several serious challenges, from China’s persistent ambition in the region to ruffling feathers with own Western counterparts in the development of the AUKUS pact which saw Canberra opting instead to develop nuclear-powered submarines with Washington and severing previous agreements with Paris. Between these two developments however, the Chinese threat remains the most critical for the West and Paris, and while initial tensions remain a barrier with Canberra over the submarine snub, both realise that common interoperability and coordination of deterrent capacity against the higher common threat remain the higher priority in consolidating the Western framework and readiness.
With France’s growing limitation and dilemma both in hard power reach and capacity, and with threat to its intent and strategy in the Indo Pacific outlined under the role of France as a “balancing power” or puissance d’équilibre(s), an expansive role without the interoperability capacity with Washington and other Quad members will simply not yield the desired results, even backfiring on Paris’ overall security intent in the region.
This Indo Pacific gesture will also need the trust and long term support of credible regional players that not only fully buy the extended and cooperative security architecture of France in the region, but in a way which these players will reap the needed and mutual returns from such a security cooperation that is not limited to conventional defence asset procurements alone.
It will transcend the commercial and conventional defence needs and cooperation, but one that is based on trust, values, and long term natural adherence and commitment to the larger role, influence and presence of France and other European powers in a new sphere of mutual responsibility and value-based economic compatibility.
What France lacks in terms of offering direct and overwhelming security umbrella to the region unlike Washington, it has the capacity to make it up with its offering of a more comprehensive security architecture that includes both the traditional and non traditional domains, as well as in reinforcing and complementing the Western arc of joint deterrence and consolidated resilience in areas of maritime security, soft power strengthening and building a total security concept that includes the notion of responsible and trustworthy public and government awareness and acceptance in security policymaking and asset and geographical support point collaboration.
A free and open Indo Pacific has been the conventional cry in the last decade, and with the French vision of an inclusive Indo Pacific, the gap that exists now and the growing trust deficit that the region harbours with the West can be better addressed. While some quarters have seen the opening for France to seize on the opportunity to lead the EU’s presence in security and defence arena in this region in a more calculated model of approach as compared to Washington’s approach of one size fits all overture, Paris cannot penetrate the ingrained mistrust and distrust of the region in being wary of the direct implications of the US-Sino rivalry and the region’s strict and stubborn allegiance to its concept of neutrality.
Various efforts and strategies have been explored to capture the new sentiments of regional building and in securing national interests. These include balancing the dichotomy and extent of multilateralism, minilateralism and continuous bilateral approaches in a switch and synchronise approach in accommodating to the best contextual moulding of policies and distinct policy accommodation in suiting the needs, concerns and vulnerabilities faced by different players in the region.
More importantly, the inevitable need to engage with existing mechanisms especially the Quad and individual powers including New Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul and Canberra will be critical for both Paris and Brussels for both the EU and France to avoid costly internal friction, waste of resources and misplaced focus.
Friendshoring efforts and alliance making with a region that is both in dire need of a diversified security assurance resource and increasingly trapped in the security dilemma framework of the US-Sino rivalry will be challenging for any one power in particular without focusing on the larger context of both individual and collective regional security.
This is one area where Washington has tried to improve but has faced consistent pushback from Beijing’s increased countermeasures and renewed economic and divide and conquer model.
France will need to be strategic in its long term Indo Pacific agenda to both secure its territories and to ensure its geopolitical and economic resilience that is more Indo Pacific oriented.For this, both regional and Western buy-in will be needed, and Paris must continue to engage in a succinct and distinctive model to further improve and bolster its long term strategic defence and security ties with Washington and regional Western allies, as well as regional fence sitters.
The fragility of Malaysia’s overall defence strategy and capacity remains high if there is no concerted focus and push to safeguard the country’s long term security affiliation and transformation. Malaysia stands to gain immensely from Paris’s renewed Indo Pacific push, and Kuala Lumpur must continue to play its card well amidst its new push for defence and security diversification model in seeking greater dependence on Middle Eastern and Eastern Asian players in meeting its larger security needs. This must not be at the expense of the country’s traditional and still the most critical security assurance and support, that is from the West and Washington in particular.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.