Picture the ever-shifting geopolitical puzzle in the Indo-Pacific, and right at its center is the eagerly awaited rendezvous between the French President Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frédéric Macron and Bangladesh scheduled for September 10th, 2023. This meeting shines a spotlight on France’s rising significance in the Indo-Pacific arena. While the United States charts a course that balances cooperation and confrontation to manage China’s ascent, France, in contrast, paints a more intricate canvas, choosing to place cooperation at the forefront. This nuanced strategy becomes the compass guiding their approach to tackle a few specific and several uncertain emergent challenges and opportunities within the Bay of Bengal and its surrounding regions.
France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Bay of Bengal
The Bay of Bengal stands as a vital intersection of maritime trade and strategic interests, holding immense geopolitical importance. Home to nations like Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, each with unique geopolitical aspirations and alliances, this region is also at the forefront of a technological revolution, especially in security, artificial intelligence, and space exploration. With its robust technological capabilities, France is poised to play a significant role in shaping the region’s technological landscape. Within the Bay of Bengal lie abundant commercial opportunities, spanning trade, investment, and infrastructure development. France’s Indo-Pacific strategy aims to unlock these opportunities for French businesses by fostering collaboration with regional partners. This approach sets France apart from some of its allies, like the United States and Australia, who have adopted a more confrontational and competitive stance through the controversial AUKUS security partnership, which drew significant criticism, notably from France, leading to the cancellation of its submarine deal with Australia.
France’s Indo-Pacific Response and Ambitions
Some analysts have interpreted France’s reaction to AUKUS as reflecting its frustration and isolation in the Indo-Pacific. In this complex theater, France contends with the dual challenges of China’s increasing assertiveness and influence alongside its partners’ evolving alliances and interests. However, France’s Indo-Pacific strategy also underscores its ambition and confidence to assume a more engaged and positive role in the region, where it possesses historical ties, overseas territories, and strategic interests.
The ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ Dynamic in the Indo-Pacific
Flipping the script, France’s Indo-Pacific strategy can be seen as an endeavor to assume the role of the ‘good cop’ in the region, offering a more collaborative and inclusive alternative to the ‘bad cop’ posture adopted by the US. The United States has pursued a strategy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ and ‘dual deterrence,’ meaning it refrains from unequivocally stating its stance on territorial disputes while keeping military intervention as a possible option if its allies or interests are jeopardized. Concurrently, the US has bolstered alliances and partnerships with nations such as Japan, Australia, India, and the Philippines, as well as expanded its military presence and operations within the region.
In contrast, China perceives the US as a hegemonic force meddling its internal affairs and undermining its sovereignty and security. Accusations fly, with China asserting that the US violates its territorial integrity and maritime rights, stirs up unrest, and provokes conflicts in the area. Furthermore, the two powers have become embroiled in a multifaceted trade, technology, and ideology struggle, potentially jeopardizing the global economy, regional stability, and good governance practices. Hence, any escalation of China’s stance in the region could signal that the West is employing this strategy as a deterrent.
The ‘good cop, bad cop’ approach holds potential advantages for Western strategic goals in the Indo-Pacific. It allows Western nations to address China’s assertiveness from diverse angles, accommodating regional partners’ varying interests and preferences. While the United States, as a global superpower, has a broader spectrum of worldwide and regional security concerns, including maintaining influence in East Asia and upholding international norms, France’s interests may be more localized, with a focus on safeguarding its overseas territories and asserting its presence in the Indian Ocean. This complementary approach can effectively enhance their ability to advance Western strategic aims while signalling to China that the Western world is united in upholding a rules-based order. Effective coordination between these Western nations could strengthen their position in influencing the behaviour of regional countries.
French Arrival in Bengal: Historical Footprints
The French arrived in Bengal in 1673, purchasing land at Chandernagore from the Mughal Governor of Bengal. The French East India Company established its first factory at Surat in 1668 and another at Masaulipatam in 1669. In 1673, the Mughal Subedar of Bengal allowed the French to set up a township at Chandernagore.
Although both Bengalis and French have bitter memories of defeat in the war of Plassey in 1757, when a contingent of French troops along with Siraj ud-Daulah’s army fought against the British forces, there is an anticipated consensus among the geopolitical expert community that a network of coordinated business and security activities will boost the energy needed to attain geoeconomic, geopolitical, and geostrategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Bangladesh- France Partnership for Progress
With its rapid economic growth, a youthful population exceeding 120 million crammed into a mere 57,000 square miles, and a strategic location straddling the South and Southeast Asian crossroads, Bangladesh has transformed into a fertile ground for producing premium goods that can serve the region and beyond. Beyond its economic prowess, Bangladesh has successfully shouldered security responsibilities by contributing significantly to UN peacekeeping missions and taking a leading role in addressing pressing global challenges like pollution, pandemics, climate change, and sustainable development.
Recognizing Bangladesh’s importance as a regional player and a burgeoning market for business and investments, France may stand ready to engage. Bangladesh, too, has avenues to explore, from bolstering its maritime domain awareness and participating in regional security initiatives like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) to expanding trade and economic opportunities across diverse sectors like energy, technology, infrastructure, education, agriculture, textiles, and digital services.
Bangladesh should seek France’s expertise to diversify the economy, elevate its industrial foundation, and seamlessly integrate into regional and global value chains. France can extend its support to Bangladesh in improving its business environment and governance and attracting foreign direct investment. Additionally, Bangladesh can tap into France’s knowledge and best practices for implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development while encouraging France to mobilize resources and partnerships to aid Bangladesh’s green transition and resilience efforts.
France’s rich linguistic diversity, higher education excellence, and research capabilities offer a promising avenue for Bangladesh to enhance its human capital and innovation potential, fostering mutual understanding and people-to-people connections.
Furthermore, a compelling area for collaboration between Bangladesh and France lies in the domains of air defence and space technology. In defence, attention shifts to cutting-edge radars, jammers, air-defence missiles spanning different ranges, and versatile drones, prioritizing practicality over the acquisition of expensive fighter jets. Bangladesh’s unique security landscape, coupled with the complexities and costs associated with fighter jets, underscores the need for a more agile and cost-effective approach, which France can help facilitate.
Moreover, the two nations can jointly establish factories and provide human resources for the production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which offer greater versatility and lower costs compared to manned aircraft or vehicles. Beyond defence applications, these technologies find utility in areas such as disaster management, agriculture, and surveillance.
France’s prominence in aerospace and satellite industries, exemplified by its assistance in launching Bangladesh’s first communication satellite, Bangabandhu-1, in 2018, underscores the potential for mutual growth. Collaboration between Bangladesh and France can foster the exchange of expertise, technology, and resources to enhance their capabilities and address shared challenges.
In the realm of heavy industries and shipbuilding, Bangladesh, with its extensive coastline, skilled workforce, and cost-efficient production capabilities, possesses the potential to emerge as a regional shipbuilding powerhouse. France, renowned for its advanced naval vessel construction, including submarines, frigates, and aircraft carriers, can partner with Bangladesh to embark on joint ship and vessel production ventures, unlocking synergies, economies of scale, and mutual economic benefits.
Lastly, France’s esteemed education system aligns with Bangladesh’s aspirations for educational improvement. Through collaborative efforts, the two nations can establish joint education programs, facilitate student and teacher exchanges, and promote knowledge sharing in a bid to strengthen their educational foundations.
Bangladesh’s Perspective: Fostering Collaborative Diplomacy with France
Bangladesh acknowledges and values France’s vital role in bolstering regional peace and stability through its active engagement in diverse multilateral forums, including the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, IORA, and IONS. As a responsible global actor, France’s contributions resonate within the intricate fabric of regional dynamics.
Bangladesh’s approach towards France’s Indo-Pacific strategy and its relationships with other regional players remains pragmatic and well-balanced. The nation recognizes the intricate nature of regional geopolitics, particularly in relation to China’s influence and role. Bangladesh maintains a cordial and cooperative partnership with China, underpinned by mutual respect and shared benefits principles. It emphasizes the importance of not being drawn into rivalries or conflicts among major powers or blocs. It firmly upholds its independent foreign policy guided by the doctrine of ‘friendship to all, malice to none.
Written by Rajeev Ahmed
Geopolitical Analyst, Strategic Thinker and Editor at geopolits.com