Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

The Asia 'pivots' of Britain and France

Britain and France are paying more attention to Asia. And their central objective is no longer China.

AS GERMAN Chancellor Angela Merkel is greeted with full state honours in Beijing this morning, diplomats from France and Britain will be watching her movements with beady eyes.

That's not because either the British or the French want Dr Merkel to fail. Europe's prosperity depends on the success of Germany as the continent's biggest economy and that, in turn, is predicated on thriving German trade with China.

Still, unlike Germany, both Britain and France have diversified their approach to Asia from a simple mercantilist one of just selling or buying goods to a broader engagement in Asia's military and security concerns.

And both the British and French resent the fact that their efforts are still overshadowed by a Germany which continues to be interested in only Asian trade, rather than any other diplomatic complications.

Many of Asia's security analysts seem to derive particular pleasure from dismissing Britain and France as yesterday's stories, countries which once lorded over the world but are now locked in an irreversible decline.

As one dismissive remark often made by regional specialists puts it, Britain's royal navy once dominated all of Asia's waterways but now would struggle to deploy even one frigate to the South China Sea.

Curiously, however, the same analysts who take potshots at the supposed impotence of Europe's old colonial powers also assert in the same breath that economic clout and good governance matter more than military force in providing solutions to Asia's current security problems.

Yet on both these counts, France and Britain remain key global players.

Behind their significance

IN TERMS of size of gross domestic product, the French and the British economies rank as the fifth- and sixth-largest in the world: the national economy of either one of them is bigger than those all the Asean economies combined.

Rightly or wrongly, the British and the French also retain veto powers on the United Nations Security Council.

So, if any of Asia's current territorial or maritime disputes is ever resolved through legal mediation and needs to be enshrined in international law, this cannot be done without Britain and France either approving it or, at the very least, abstaining from imposing a veto.

Furthermore - and precisely because they were imperial powers - Britain and France enjoy serious, intimate knowledge of Asian affairs.

One could legitimately criticise the attitudes of French or British diplomats, but it's difficult to claim that they lack local expertise.

The real problem for both Britain and France is that their collective expertise was not put to good use in Asia.

After their military defeat in Vietnam and hasty retreat from Indochina, the French concentrated on European affairs. And just about the only coherent "Asian" policy which Britain pursued since the late 1960s was expressed in negative terms: a determination to liquidate any serious commitment eastwards of the Suez Canal.

To be sure, there were exceptions to this general state of neglect, such as Britain's return of Hong Kong to China, which required some deft diplomatic footwork, or France's occasional forays in brokering a settlement of Cambodia's civil strife.

On the whole, however, the jobs for high-flying diplomats were found in the corridors of the European Union - not in, say, a British consulate in Chongqing.

And, even when the growth of Asian economies dictated a change of priorities, the British and French response was initially clumsy.

Both London and Paris concentrated all their attention on China. And both viewed this effort as a commercial enterprise, rather than as a political enterprise with commercial connotations.

The emphasis was on selling as much as possible to China, or at least ingratiating oneself to the Chinese so as to secure future trade.

The British, who have an unelected monarch and an instinctive aversion to government interference in trade matters, were not particularly good at this game; the French, who have an elected "monarchy" and a long history of government control, were always better-equipped for this policy.

For many years, French president Jacques Chirac single-handedly interpreted his country's Asia policy, claiming a superior knowledge on everything from ancient Asian art to current feminine beauty, both of which he allegedly collected in prodigious quantities.

But the ultimate winner in this race was Germany, the nation which had the precision engineering and technology which the Chinese needed to purchase.

In the late 1990s, president Chirac vowed to "triple" France's share of trade with Asia, which then stood at 2 per cent of Asian imports.

A decade later, France's share tumbled to only 1 per cent of Asia's purchases from overseas suppliers. As London and Paris ultimately conceded, they needed a different strategy if they were to remain relevant.

Looking beyond China

THERE are plenty of national differences between the French and British current "pivots" to Asia. Yet the similarities are far more striking.

Both the British and the French have abandoned the idea that China is the central objective of their Asian policies; China remains important to anything they do, yet there is a consensus that the best way of getting Beijing's attention is not by flattering Chinese officials at every opportunity but, rather, by being on good terms with other Asian actors.

The number of visits by French and British officials to the region has doubled.

The size of embassies and other diplomatic missions in Asia is also growing fast.

And the courtship of Japan in particular is striking. France has already launched a yearly dialogue with foreign and defence ministers from both countries, and the British will follow suit by the end of this year.

To be sure, economic interests are not far behind, particularly when it comes to arms sales.

Half of all the weapons imported by Malaysia, for instance, come from France, and Asia now accounts for a third of all French military exports.

British arms exports have not done as well, but they are already making inroads in South Korea, where British defence manufacturers are clocking up around £1 billion (S$2.1 billion) in sales each year.

London has high hopes in Japan, where plans are afoot for British and Japanese companies to manufacture weapons jointly, and then export them worldwide.

Containing China?

OFFICIALLY, Britain and France continue to maintain that this growing regional involvement does not mean that they are interested in the containment of China, or in expressing an opinion on Asia's territorial and maritime disputes.

In private, however, British and French diplomats concede that it's not in Europe's interests for China to dominate Asia, and that Europeans are affected by rising tensions in the South China Sea.

The speech by French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore pointedly congratulated Japan for its contributions to regional security. It was an indirect rebuke to China of a kind few other French officials even contemplated previously.

France and Britain's new regional engagement has its limits. On its own, it will not improve the European Union's overall policy in Asia, which is timid and shapeless: the EU remains far better at proclaiming a "principled policy" without any idea on how it could be followed through.

Nor can the French or Brits change Germany's current China-focused policy. Only Dr Merkel can do that, and she does not seem interested.

Still, French and British pressure may hasten the negotiation of a new economic partnership agreement between the EU and key Asian economies, which could be completed by next year.

Britain and France can also influence American policies in Asia. The close link between British and US intelligence services is particularly important in this respect.

And, by getting more involved with other Asian nations, the British and the French are also gently reminding Beijing that China's claim for primacy in its neighbourhood is neither accepted, nor seen as a forgone conclusion.

So, while the Chinese roll out the red carpet for Dr Merkel this morning, they would be well-advised to pay some attention to British and French policies in the regions.

France and Britain's new engagement in Asia seems like "muddled pivots", as Professor Francois Godement, one of France's top Asian experts, recently put it.

But significant pivots nevertheless.