Sri Lanka the Centre of the Indo-Pacific for France | Daily News


Sri Lanka the Centre of the Indo-Pacific for France

France is no stranger to the Indo-Pacific region due to its presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans in the territories of New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Reunion Island and Mayotte. This affords France with the second-largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world, thereby presenting France with interests in the Indo-Pacific region. In this context, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled the country’s Indo-Pacific Strategy in Australia in May 2018. Approximately two years since this declaration, the Director for Asia and Oceania at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs - Thierry Mathou visited Sri Lanka to expand and improve French relations in the region, especially with Sri Lanka.

French Indo-Pacific Strategy

The French strategy in the Indo-Pacific region is unique unto itself, as it does not merely focus on defence and security and instead focuses on several different aspects, such as economic development, environment and various non-traditional threats to security. Calling for a multilateral framework for engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, France advocates an inclusive and cooperative engagement between the players of the Indo-Pacific region, thereby encouraging equal opportunity for all. Hence, France disclaims the concept of a hegemon and instead, underscores the importance of collective responsibility in the region.

Considering itself a neighbour of the countries in the Indo-Pacific, France understands the narrative and concerns of its fellow littorals such as the security impact of climate change due to changes in geography etc. The strategy indicates that “…droughts, floods and rising water levels, soil erosion are not just natural events. They are also military events.” This understanding based on first-hand experience, prompted the French commitment towards Climate Change, whereby France promoted the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015.

Focusing more closely on the relations in the Indian Ocean standpoint of the Indo-Pacific, France understands the important role played by multilateral regional fora. Hence, France is participating in major regional groupings such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and is seeking full membership of the same.

What’s in it for Sri Lanka?

Having taken into account the recent changes in Sri Lanka’s political arena, the French counterparts are recrafting their engagement with Sri Lanka. Hence, a foremost priority for bilateral relations is for France to be more visible in Sri Lanka. This is towards developing a bilateral roadmap to work with Sri Lanka. According to Mathou, the French have also taken into consideration the developments in the Indo-Pacific region, and factored in their status as a littoral state of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This is inevitable for France, due to the power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific with many countries showcasing their interest in working with Sri Lanka. Hence, from the French perspective, they may have felt as if they were left behind or as if they were late to the game, as many countries had already lined up, indicating their interest in working with Sri Lanka.

The French presence in the Reunion Islands in the IOR makes France and Sri Lanka neighbours, therefore it is important to conceptualise as to how bilateral relations can be improved taking into consideration their neighbourhood status. This is a crucial factor underpinning the relations, as the neighbourhood status would greatly improve the ability for the two Indian Ocean states to work together. Whilst bilateral relations between the two states are robust, the French objective is to make it more meaningful, better structured and more systematic. Not only will this renewed interest enable bilateral relations to prosper, but it will enable France to prepare a roadmap for the entire South Asian region. South Asia’s significance in the Indo-Pacific region cannot be overlooked as it is home to prominent states such as India and Sri Lanka that are playing a vital role in the region’s power play. This, therefore, permits more avenues for interaction and engagement between the two Indian Ocean territories.

Towards this end, the French are keen on having regularly consultations so they can be more visible in Sri Lanka. Considered as a country with a sound soft power status, France will continue to organise their Colombo Spring Festival as a means of furthering interactions in the country. However, their interactions will be manifold, as France considers Sri Lanka to be the centre of the Indo-Pacific for them. Hence, through the French engagement in this island it can deliberate on mechanisms via which it can improve its visibility not only in Sri Lanka but also in the greater Indian Ocean region.

Being a resident state in both Europe and the Indian Ocean, France understands global dynamics from both perspectives. Hence, it considers itself, the gateway for Sri Lanka in the European Union (EU). As such, France considers itself as taking the role of the intermediary between the EU and Sri Lanka in a post-Brexit Europe. Mathou is of the view that France has the potential to take on this role, as Europe can provide Sri Lanka better alternatives for its much needed development agenda.

This confidence comes through France’s present engagement in Sri Lanka, wherein it is Sri Lanka’s second largest development partner, working on projects such as water treatment projects and improving fishing villages. According to the French Agency for Development (AFD) the investment in the development of two to four fishing harbours in the south of Sri Lanka is estimated to be approximately “€120 million, €8 million of which could be financed by a grant from the European Union”. France seeks to further engage with Sri Lanka, in order to develop the country’s industries and improve the living standards of its people. This is in order for this European state to be visible as an earnest stakeholder in the island’s development agenda.

Mathou further indicated that France intends to increase its economic engagement with Sri Lanka as the existing bilateral trade is in Sri Lanka’s favour. Therefore, France wants to improve the trade deficit, and one mechanism they have in mind is to further invest through French companies such as Michelin and Decathlon who are already in Sri Lanka, and expand their businesses in the island. He indicated that there are additional avenues for bilateral business interactions such as by way of contributing towards high-quality projects in Sri Lanka. These projects, when implemented would be beneficial for Sri Lanka’s apparel industry as French companies such as Decathlon intend on producing their merchandise through Sri Lankan companies.

According to Mathou, France is not in competition with any country, hence, is not concerned of countries such as China and India working closely with Sri Lanka. He also indicated that China’s interests and relationship with Sri Lanka were not of concern to France, as it understands that development and investment is a priority area for Sri Lanka, thus contends it is natural for Sri Lanka to seek investment portfolios for its priority sectors.

However, Mathou claimed that it is ill-advised to rely on a single partner for investment and development, which underscores the importance of alternatives for Sri Lanka. It is in this regard that France considers itself prepared to provide that alternative to Sri Lanka. It is prepared both to be an alternative on its own and also in conjunction with the European Union. Towards this end of providing alternatives, France is also prepared to work with China and India in Sri Lanka, but in compliance with global norms and established practices. This could likely be a blessing for Sri Lanka, in order for the island to improve its infrastructure facilities with more quality and standards.

Whilst there are many traditional methods via which both France and Sri Lanka can cooperate on ensuring bilateral security, there are ample non-traditional security threats the two countries together can counter. Accordingly, the top-most priority is with regard to environment security. This is to enable conditions within countries to reduce the risk of climate change related hazards. This includes educating the public about being environmentally friendly, having zero-waste and also being conscious about emissions.

This is of particular importance to France as a country championing the safety and well-being of Planet Earth. Another non-traditional security threat the two states are tackling is illegal migration. There were a few incidents in the recent past where vessels comprising of Sri Lankans reached France’s Reunion Island, off the coast of Africa. Sri Lankans who were travelling in these vessels were attempting to illegally enter France or seek asylum.

The French Ambassador - Eric Lavertu chipping in, noted that a strategy to curtail these efforts was not yet implemented as there have not been fresh incidents. Further, the French Embassy in Sri Lanka is seeking Australia’s advice and experience on this matter, and sharing notes on best practices. This knowledge, they believe would enable them to finalise a mechanism to curtail future incidents. The French Embassy is keen on working together with Sri Lanka Navy, Sri Lanka Coast Guard as well as Sri Lanka Police on this matter.

Speaking further on possible avenues for bilateral cooperation, Director Mathou indicated that tourism and human exchanges were two possible avenues for further cooperation. Accordingly, France is keen on re-establishing the air connectivity between the two countries and is working on realising this goal.

Enabling this, Mathou opines, will facilitate increased travel between the two countries, facilitating both business and tourism. And the latter, the French Director for Asia and Oceania indicates is a priority area for France-Sri Lanka bilateral relations, whereby the roadmap concentrates on increasing tourist arrivals between the two countries. Increased tourist arrivals would be a welcome respite for Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, which has been struggling to survive from one setback after another. However, incidents such as the Covid-19 pandemic bring to the fore how integrated societies are in the present day and age.

Therefore, in conclusion, is can be understood that the French policy for the Indo-Pacific region has a significant role for Sri Lanka to play and that Sri Lanka stands to merit from these increased interactions and collaborations. Interactions with France warrants alternatives for investment and development projects in Sri Lanka as well as better access to the European Union’s markets. As neighbours in the Indian Ocean region, the two countries are also able to engage in various security exchanges in improving the safety and security of this region. Thus overall, increased cooperation with France would have significant benefits for Sri Lanka in the future.


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