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Date: Thu, 25 Feb 1999 01:22:37 +0800
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From: E Phillip Lim <alsona@PACIFIC.NET.SG>
Subject: Fwd: The French connection: Interview with French Defence Minister

The French connection; Interview with French Defence Minister Alain Richard

The Staits Times, 24 February 1998

France wants to play a broader and more substantive role in the security of South-east Asia. Its Defence Minister Alain Richard, who is visiting Singapore as part of an Asian swing, tells Straits Times Foreign Editor FELIX SOH why

It is not widely known nor publicised, but France's permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean and Pacific is about the size of the entire Malaysian navy, which is by itself not an insubstantial force.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Malaysia's navy numbers about 50 warships and support vessels.

Thus, the French naval presence on the fringes of South-east Asia is significant. The warships are based in Tahiti and Noumea in the Pacific, and in La Reunion (a French island close to Mauritius) and Djibouti in the Indian Ocean.

Besides the American and Chinese navies, the French fleet assembled in the Pacific and Indian Ocean is the only other naval force with enough tonnage and firepower to play a credible security role in the region.

Although not stationed in the region, the French combat vessels do call regularly at ports in the area -- and so have the opportunity of exercising with South-east Asian navies.

An example is the recent visit of the Jeanne d'Arc training group, comprising the eponymous helicopter carrier and its support warships, to Japan and Singapore.

This is a concrete demonstration of France (and Europe in general) wanting a greater role in the Asian security equation -- such as participation in the Asean Regional Forum -- even though it recognises the US as the major player in maintaining the region's peace and stability.

France also wants its defence cooperation with Asian countries to grow.

It feels it has a fund of military and defence equipment expertise that could be better exploited by the countries in the region.

Why the need for a greater role in South-east Asian geopolitics? What are France's strategic interests in the region?

There are two imperatives.

One is France's historical obligation to support the rule of law in the world, which has led to its stationing of 30,000 troops outside French borders currently.

The other is the recognition of the economic interdependence between France and Asia.

We must not try to hide the fact that France is at the heart of Europe, and this determines the priorities of her defence and security policy, said French Defence Minister Alain Richard in an interview with The Straits Times before his arrival this week in the region.

However, one of the aims behind the creation of a European security and defence identity is to enable Europe to give greater emphasis to her political and security interests throughout the world.

Naturally, Asia is a political zone where Europe should have a greater presence, as demonstrated by its contribution to the stabilisation of the Korean peninsula via its participation in Kedo, the largest behind that of Japan.

(Kedo -- Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation -- is a multilateral organisation responsible for building two nuclear light water reactors in North Korea in return for a halt in Pyongyang's nuclear research and re-processing efforts.)

Mr Richard's official week-long visit to three Asian countries (starting with Singapore, then Brunei and Thailand) just one month after visiting Japan and South Korea reinforces France's interest in building up its political and strategic relations with Asian countries.

On why France wants to be strategically engaged in the region, he said:

The preservation of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region is dear to our heart. France is willing to shed blood in this cause and has done so on many occasions since 1945.

We are willing to contribute as much as we can to peace and security in your region as I think we convincingly demonstrated several years ago with our active participation in the resolution of the Cambodian conflict. Some 1,500 French troops took part in the United Nations operation to bring the warring parties to the ballot box.

The other imperative, the economic one, is gaining more currency because of the globalisation of trade and finance.

As the Far East is the third largest generator of wealth in the world, we value stability in the region, as it cannot be denied that trade or investment activities between us increasingly influence activity and employment levels in the countries of Europe, he said.

The Asian economic crisis has had a negative impact on European growth, he said, pointing out that the development of regional instability or conflict would have even more serious consequences.

Our economic interdependence therefore obliges us, as regions, to cooperate in the political and security fields, he added.

This pragmatism and appreciation of geopolitical realities have consistently been the hallmark of French policy-making.

In 1964, it was the first major Western nation to open diplomatic and military representation in China.

It was unreasonable to continue to politically ignore this great nation, commented Mr Richard.

This approach led to the establishment of a politico-military dialogue with China to discuss not only issues which both sides could agree on, but also those in which they had disagreements.

He said: This is only natural.

With China, one must retain a balanced outlook, hopefully sheltered from the mood swings which emerge to weaken that which had been achieved with such difficulty only a short time before, to establish a relationship of mutual confidence tinged with vigilance.

As with all members of the United Nations, China must respect the rule of law in the modern world and the code of conduct for responsible nations who wish to settle their differences peaceably.

The best way of encouraging this is certainly not to isolate the country, creating controversy and a policy of containment more appropriate to another age, but rather to develop an open, frank and constructive dialogue.

Another important facet of France's defence links with the region is the sale of its military equipment to Asian countries.

Many Asian armed forces use French weaponry, ranging from combat aircraft to helicopters to missiles.

Asked whether the sale of French weapons influences the conduct of the country's foreign policy in the region, Mr Richards responded: Perhaps your question should be rephrased in the reverse order as it is, of course, France's foreign policy that conditions her arms export policy and not the reverse.

He said that the growth of French arms sales in the region is due to the energy inherent in its defence industry. Last year, France was the second-largest arms exporter in the world.

It also represents a solid contribution to regional stability and to the ability of nations to defend themselves, he added.

He pointed out that when France decides to authorise the sale of defence equipment to another country, it takes due account of political and strategic factors and in this way contributes to the promotion of regional stability.

The sale of arms is thus the manifestation, the ultimate expression, of closer ties and political confidence between two nations, he added.

In an oblique reference to competition provided by the US in the sale of weapons to the region, he commented: Many Asian nations also have a legitimate desire to diversify their suppliers and to benefit from the transfer of technology or of operational expertise.

France is renowned for both the high quality of her equipment and for her ability to cooperate at a technical, industrial and operational level.

Europe's response to competitive pressure from the US and the stagnation in the arms markets is to integrate its defence industries.

Also, European leaders share the view that a grouping together of the region's industrial and technological forces is a necessary step towards broader political rapprochement.

This led to the inter-governmental declaration of December 1997 and, subsequently, the signing of a joint political letter of intent last July by the Defence Ministers of the six principal European arms-manufacturing nations, to facilitate the constitution and operation of trans-European defence companies.

The French government sincerely hopes that a European aerospace and defence company will soon emerge that will be competitive in the world stage, said Mr Richard.

The restructuring of the French defence industry and its Europeanisation is well under way.

A series of European alliances are emerging. An example is the Aerospatiale-Matra merger, which makes the group the fifth-largest in the world.

Europe cannot be said to be truly complete until it has developed the necessary resources, he said.

The emergence of a European defence industry that is strong and competitive also favours the European defence plan.