Africa a low presence in the first Indo-Pacific forum

2022-02-25

The Indo-Pacific – a relatively new concept – stretches from South Africa via the Red Sea to Russia, New Zealand and Canada. It’s not a well-defined concept geographically and is even fuzzier politically. But given its growing geopolitical significance, it is a region that Africa needs to be more actively involved in for security and development reasons.  

France, which regards itself as an Indo-Pacific nation via its many island territories in the region, created its first Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2018 and the European Union (EU) followed soon after. Other European countries already have or are drafting similar policies, as are the United States (US), Japan and India.

These strategies are, to varying degrees, a response to China’s growing presence in the region. So it’s perhaps not surprising that, according to French officials, Beijing regards the very concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’ as hostile to its interests.

At the first Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific held in Paris on 22 February and co-chaired by the EU and France – China was the proverbial elephant in the room. Around 50 countries and regional organisations attended, but China wasn’t invited. Nor was the US – to avoid a spat between the two global rivals, officials said. Russia was also not invited.

South Africa didn’t attend because it had concluded that the forum was an anti-Chinese event

China’s absence raised the question: was this a meeting to formulate a strategy to contain it? Beijing is growing bolder in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. It’s asserting multiple claims against states such as Vietnam and the Philippines for full sovereignty over hundreds of tiny islands and atolls. It hopes to extend its Exclusive Economic Zones, several of which have been transformed into military bases – in effect, unsinkable and immovable aircraft carriers.

France and the EU both denied that the forum aimed to form a bloc against China. ‘It’s not against China or anyone,’ France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian insisted. ‘It’s about the development of partnerships between the European Union and the Indo-Pacific.’

Not everyone was convinced. South Africa’s International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor was invited but eventually declined. Pretoria’s ambassador to France was supposed to represent her, but he didn’t arrive. South African officials told ISS Today this was because Pretoria had concluded that this was indeed an anti-Chinese event.

South Africa’s absence aggravated an already weak African presence and participation in the forum. The centre of gravity of the discussion was clearly towards the eastward half of the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.

According to officials, Djibouti was there but said little, with the Indian Ocean island states – particularly Mauritius, Madagascar and Seychelles – being the most active African participants. This is perhaps not surprising, given the maritime bias of the concept and the focus on topics such as the blue economy. And also the island states sense that their security issues are not being addressed adequately by the African Union (AU).

Indian Ocean island states of Mauritius, Madagascar and Seychelles were Africa’s most active participants

Discussions at the forum covered three themes: connectivity and digital technology; global issues such as health and climate change; and security and defence. The first two seemed neutral enough, though even there, one could discern the outlines of China.

The connectivity and digital tech pillar focused on building up the EU’s 2021 Global Gateway strategy, which aims to develop leading infrastructure projects, ‘promoting the European model for personal data protection.’ It’s not hard to contrast this with the Chinese company Huawei’s international dominance in supplying 5G technology. Western countries suspect Huawei is passing private customer information to Chinese intelligence, as the law apparently obliges them to do.

But the security and defence pillar was where China’s implicit presence became most visible. The focus was on implementing the Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) in the Indian Ocean and related initiatives. Part of the CMP’s ambition is to keep maritime routes open to all, Le Drian pointed out at the press conference after the meeting. The CMP pilot project was in the Gulf of Guinea, mainly to counter piracy.

The EU’s special envoy for the Indo-Pacific, Gabriele Visentin, told journalists that the forum had agreed that the first extension of the CMP would be into the north-west Indian Ocean at the Strait of Hormuz. That’s the strategically critical choke point between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, just north of Operation Atalanta, where the EU naval force is helping to combat piracy off the Somali coast.

Some African countries fear that the Indo-Pacific concept will drag them into big power rivalries

Visentin said other CMP areas could include the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. And he didn’t rule out one in the South China Sea where China is trying to restrict other countries’ vessels from freely navigating through waters it claims as its own.

South Africa’s decision to skip the Indo-Pacific forum was interesting. It was another example of how the country finds its options limited by its alliance with China through strong bilateral ties and BRICS membership. The Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa economic bloc regards itself as a counter to Western global dominance. South Africa similarly declined an invitation to US President Joe Biden’s virtual democracy summit because Pretoria saw it as anti-Chinese.

Though also a BRICS member, India felt no such qualms about the Indo-Pacific forum. In the opening session, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar welcomed the EU’s ‘commitment to contribute to the security of the region’. He suggested that the EU’s presence balanced unnamed regional forces throwing their weight around without respect for international law, territorial integrity, and sovereignty – a seemingly implicit reference to China.

There could be many reasons for Africa’s relative indifference to France’s Indo-Pacific forum – including just plain ‘summit fatigue’ as French officials suggested. The forum followed the AU and AU–EU summits in quick succession.

Some African states also still need to be convinced of the benefits, though the island nations are not among them. Some countries, like South Africa, are suspicious about the Indo-Pacific concept and fear being dragged into big power rivalries.

Yet the concept seems to be here to stay. And so, as Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Researcher Denys Reva has suggested, Africa should be more proactive in framing its understanding of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and how it can benefit, while retaining its regional autonomy.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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