Foreign policy experts say Anthony Albanese’s visit to Paris this week is about restoring one of Australia’s oldest partnerships and reinvigorating one of its newest, a powerful asset to competition with China.
Mr. Albanese left Sunday for a NATO leadership summit reflecting the growing South Pacific and Northern Europe ties.
The summit of the security group leaders in Madrid will be attended by the prime minister and his colleagues from Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand, the first edition of such a sizeable contingent in Asia-Pacific.
But while he has postponed an RSVP for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mr. Albanian has announced that he will make time to see French President Emmanuel Macron.
That’s a natural choice, as the two countries have shown their commitment to a wide range of values and relationships through many tests dating back to World War I, according to John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence at the ANU.
While Australia views the Pacific as essential to its future, France is a much bigger part of the region than many realized, he said; it shares a border that divides the less than 1,100 kilometers between Brisbane and Noumea.
“France [is a neighbor] to some of the areas of the Pacific that the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, has recently visited,” Professor Blaxland said.
“They are an enduring Pacific power” […with] play a role in influencing, stabilizing, and consolidating influence, and security and stability and aid.
“France has a not insignificant military presence in the Pacific and has always been a major force.”
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But when Australia recently declared its intention to focus foreign policy on that region and talked louder about responding to China’s rise in the area, any strategy to do so was shattered.
Months before Malcolm Turnbull’s prime minister ended, Mr. Macron declared the partnership between France and Australia, establishing an “Indo-Pacific axis” to advance law and trade across the region.
Not long before Scott Morrison got the boat, France announced that it no longer considered Australia one of its partners in the Pacific.
“Until the cancellation of the submarine contract, France’s Indo-Pacific strategy was deeply involved in working with Australia,” said Professor Blaxland.
“But now that Macron has been re-elected, and Anthony Albanese has been elected here in Australia, this is a major turning point.”
Macron’s foreign policy has been welcomed as assertive by some critics of Chinese influence.
But it has also been described as taking a different path from Atlanticism, or a staunch alignment with Britain and America pursued by its predecessors.
Emmanuel Macron (left, with Joe Biden) has taken a different path from his predecessors in his relationship with the US. Photo: Getty
“They put forward ideas that sometimes conflict with the policy priorities of the United States or other Western European powers, or of Australia, but which remain broadly in line with our interests,” Professor Blaxland said.
“Basically, they recognize that we are in competition with China over influence in the Pacific and that Australia is a natural and sustainable partner in pursuing French interests.”
With Australia participating in the negotiations on the possible future enlargement of NATO, Mr. Albanian could find a restored relationship with the French president useful, as he can map more distant events, such as the one in Ukraine.
“For someone like Albanian who wants to be a good ally of the US but an independent foreign policy player for the pursuit of Australia’s own interests, consultation with someone like Macron makes perfect sense,” he said.