'No bloc-to-bloc competition in the Indo-Pacific'

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'No bloc-to-bloc competition in the Indo-Pacific'

Marc Abensour, France's ambassador to the Indo-Pacific, speaks during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Thursday morning at the Four Seasons Hotel in Jongno District, central Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Marc Abensour, France's ambassador to the Indo-Pacific, speaks during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Thursday morning at the Four Seasons Hotel in Jongno District, central Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Marc Abensour, the French ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, paid a visit to Korea to seek greater cooperation between Seoul and Paris on maritime security, environmental protection and humanitarian assistance in the wider region.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Four Seasons Hotel in central Seoul on Thursday, Abensour stressed that Indo-Pacific strategies “should not lead to bloc-to-bloc competition or the building of spheres of influence” and emphasized the importance of multilateralism and the international rules-based order to foster positive and sustainable development in the region.
A career diplomat with particular expertise in Asian affairs, political and military issues, Abensour is France’s second-ever ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, a position that was created to foster inter-ministerial and inter-agency coordination and communication between France and partner countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The following is an edited excerpt of the interview.
Could you explain France’s interest in, and approach to, the Indo-Pacific region?
France is a resident country of the Indo-Pacific because of our overseas territories in the Indian Ocean, like Reunion and Mayotte, and our territories in the Pacific Ocean, like New Caledonia and French Polynesia. As such, 95 percent of the French exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is the second-largest in the world, is in the Indo-Pacific, and we have 2 million French citizens living in the region. That presence is one of the important components of our Indo-Pacific strategy.

We therefore play a leading role within the European Union (EU) to promote the engagement of European countries within the Indo-Pacific. We did that most visibly during the presidency of the EU, when we organized the Indo-Pacific ministerial forum last February, which the minister of foreign affairs from Korea also attended.

My position mainly involves coordinating communication and action between all the different ministries. While execution of the French Indo-Pacific strategy mainly lies with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it also requires input and action from ministries in charge the economy, finance, defense, environment and health, as well as the development agency.

I’m also responsible for coordination with EU institutions because the European dimension of our strategy is absolutely critical, especially in executing key initiatives like Crimario, which is a program on maritime domain awareness that we have been developing with key partners in the Indian Ocean. When we organized the forum for EU ministers last February, it was agreed we would expand our cooperation further to Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
What is France’s understanding of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region,” and how does Korea fit into this vision?
When Korea adopted a strategy of maintaining a “free, peaceful and prosperous” Indo-Pacific, we thought it was excellent opportunity for France and Korea to see how they could cooperate further within the region.

Both our countries have a very inclusive approach when it comes to the Indo-Pacific in that we both want to avoid further geopolitical polarization of the region, and we are very eager to capitalize on this convergence to develop a positive agenda focused on key common elements of both countries’ strategies, which include climate change, protecting biodiversity, sustainable ocean management, energy transition, healthcare and maritime security.

This kind of partnership enables cooperation on concrete issues so that all countries gain resilience and autonomy. For example, by developing programs to combat illegal fishing and defining an appropriate regulatory framework, we can provide a country with the tools to guard its maritime sovereignty. We see that Korea is on the same page as us, and the adoption of the new strategy by Seoul is a mutual opportunity that we shouldn’t miss.  
What has been the main topic of your discussions with officials here in Korea?
Some of the discussions I’ve had with my Korean colleagues at the Korean Foreign Ministry and presidential office concern concrete initiatives that we can both support, such as humanitarian assistance for disaster and relief, in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Our shared responsibility now is to move these initiatives into operation and to execute our common approach.
Do you think France and the EU may diverge from the United States in terms of their approach to China?
I believe that Indo-Pacific strategies should not lead to bloc-to-bloc competition or the building of spheres of influence. In both our approach and the European approach, we believe that the core of all regional strategies should be based on multilateralism and rules-based order, which is a belief also shared by Korea.

As for how to deal with China, the EU has outlined a strategy based on the mantra of “partnership, competition and systemic rivalry.” Our Indo-Pacific strategy rests on this EU strategy as well. Just as the Korean strategy refers to China as a key partner, our approach is partially based on engagement with China on some key global challenges, such as climate change and protection of biodiversity.

But we also need to engage China on some regional concerns, like North Korea, Iran and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and especially about how China can contribute to apply increased pressure on Russia. It’s important to continue discussing with China on how to manage a wide range of issues.
What areas of cooperation do you see between countries in the Indo-Pacific region and NATO, such as Korea and Japan?
Sometimes, there is a perception that security issues should be referred to NATO. I want to emphasize that the EU is also a significant security actor. In addition to Crimario, the EU is also a central partner in nonproliferation crises, such as the Iranian nuclear program, and has developed greatly as a security partner in its own right through experience and the creation of coordinated policy instruments to deal with security concerns. These instruments are sometimes more appropriate because they do not contribute to increased polarization.

While France believes it’s legitimate and important for NATO to engage in dialogue and consultations with AP4 countries (Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Australia) in order to exchange views on security challenges in the region, this should not lead to an extension of NATO activities into the Indo-Pacific. NATO ultimately is a security organization dealing with issues arising in the Euro-Atlantic region.
Who are France’s other key partners in the Indo-Pacific, and in what ways does France cooperate with them?
France in the last couple of years has grown closer to Asean. We are a firm supporter of Asean’s central role and its potential to contribute to the security architecture of the region. It was a very positive development when France was granted observer status last November to Asean Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus, where we can bring our expertise in maritime security and on peacekeeping operations to the region and also contribute as a security provider in the Indo-Pacific.

One element of our security contribution to the Indo-Pacific is the regular deployment of French navy vessels and our air force to the region, such as the Jeanne D’Arc task group, which is currently in the Indian Ocean. This regular naval circumnavigation of the globe by French forces creates opportunities for France to engage in joint exercises with partners in the Indo-Pacific, which not only increases interoperability, but also helps secure access, freedom of navigation and freedom of flight.

France and its European partners are also in the process of implementing a coordinated multinational maritime presence in the northwestern Indian Ocean. Once such a mechanism in place, we can also implement it in the South Pacific as well. This area is also one where France and Korea can join efforts.

We also noted with great interest the coming summit between Korea and the Pacific islands, to which Korea also invited French territories, like French Polynesia and New Caledonia. We believe such meetings will contribute to the regional engagement of our territories and aid in the implementation of initiatives concerning climate change and biodiversity that I have discussed with my Korean counterparts.  
How does France assess the increasingly volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula, especially with regards to North Korean missile tests and the nuclear weapons debate in South Korea?  
We remain committed to combatting nuclear proliferation worldwide. We cannot and will not tolerate further undermining of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so we welcome the South Korean government’s recent renewed commitment to the authority of the treaty.

France is also deeply concerned by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which are in flagrant violation of the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions. We view these as a significant threat to international security.

Our primary objective remains the achievement of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, and we will continue to exact pressure to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiation table. This is the path we are pursuing resolutely with EU members.

In the case of a seventh nuclear test by North Korea, we will play our part to secure a firm, coherent and united response from the international community.

BY SARAH KIM,MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]
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