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IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2016 Fourth Plenary Session
Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister of Defence, France

As Delivered

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS 
I would like to open this morning’s session to thank, on behalf of all of you who were able to attend, President of the Republic of Singapore Tony Tan; the staff of the Astana and Rajaratnam School of International Studies for having been our excellent host last night at dinner at the Astana. It was a splendid occasion, and personally I want to add a special word of thanks to President Tan for his very warm remarks made on the occasion of the 15th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. As most of you know, he was the Minister of Defence of Singapore in 2002 and the person with whom the IISS most closely worked to make possible the first Shangri-La Dialogue, an experiment in defence diplomacy that has now happily been transformed into an institution of defence diplomacy.

This morning we have two plenary sessions: one on the challenges of conflict resolution, the other on pursuing common security objectives. As is traditional at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, we allow the ministers to interpret liberally the exact titles of these plenaries. They are really made as an opportunity for them to give personal expression to their thoughts on the defence and security priorities in the region as seen from the perspective of their countries.

We are very delighted to have a representative from Europe, from Southeast Asia and from Northeast Asia at this morning’s plenary. I will ask them all to speak in the order in which they appear in the programme, introducing them briefly now.

First to speak will be Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Minister of Defence of France, who has been a very loyal and persistent participant in the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue since he was first appointed Minister of Defence by President Hollande, coming to his first Shangri-La Dialogue only a few weeks after he took office as Minister of Defence and since then has come on a very regular basis and ensuring that the French delegation, in general, was always very strong and committed.

We are equally delighted to have Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, the Deputy Minister of National Defense of Vietnam. We find it particularly important to have Vietnam at this year’s Fourth Plenary owing to the great interest that attaches to Vietnam’s role in the region, one that has been highlighted also through the visit that President of the United States Obama paid to Vietnam, which resulted in part in the announcement to relax the previous arms embargo held against that country.

Finally, we are delighted to welcome for his second consecutive appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue Admiral Sun Jianguo, the Deputy Chief, Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission of China. I enjoyed the opportunity about a month ago to meet him in the Ministry of National Defense in Beijing and we had an hour of substantive discussions on the importance of the Shangri-La Dialogue to China’s own defence diplomacy, and I am delighted that he is here to present the perspective from the People’s Republic of China on these questions.

Now that the room has so elegantly and quietly settled and I have your full attention, could I please invite Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Minister of Defence of France, to take the podium?

Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister of Defence, France
Thank you, John. My good friend, the Minister of Defence of the Republic of Singapore, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to start by thanking the International Institute for Strategic Studies for the excellent organisation of this, the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue, and the government of Singapore for its warm hospitality. It is an honour for France to be present at this key security summit in Asia. And, on a personal note, as John has just mentioned, this is the fourth time that I have had the pleasure of speaking here, and I am pleased to have ensured the continuity of French attendance here, reflecting both our interest and involvement in security issues in the Asia-Pacific.

France is a European power, but it has geographic and political territories in Asia and Oceania. Today, 85% of our exclusive economic zone, which covers 11 million square kilometres – making it the second largest in the world – is located in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Over 1,600,000 French citizens live in this zone, and we have a permanent military presence of 8,000 personnel, who are responsible for the protection and security of French territories and for monitoring our exclusive economic zones. These forces are also involved in local relief efforts, the fight against trafficking, state operations at sea, and joint defence activities across all domains with our various allies and partners.

Asia lies at the heart of this area, and is a hothouse for economic and population growth and technological innovation critical to global prosperity. Yet Asia also has its vulnerabilities.

So, as a minster of defence, for me the issue of stability in the Asia-Pacific is not a theoretical one. It is a concrete issue, which occupies a large part of my ministry in the areas of strategic planning, monitoring regional developments, dialogue with our partners, intelligence activities, planning and operational management.
To examine conflicts in the Asia-Pacific, and their resolution, is to raise the question of what conditions are needed to create stability in this region. I see two key conditions for stability, which I would like to address: order and change.

Stability requires political order. This order is the result of a historical process that has shaped the legal and political architecture, institutions and arrangements that ensure a sustainable framework for human activities. However, this order is not set in stone. It can evolve. That is why the second condition for stability is, paradoxically, change, or more precisely adaptation; that is to say, the way that change can take place without generating catastrophic instability. Certain elements must all be in place in order for change and stability to go hand in hand. There are three that I feel are essential.

Firstly, the rule of law. This element is particularly important with regard to regional maritime issues. The principles of freedom of navigation and overflight, to which France is deeply committed, represent a crucial issue. Last week, the heads of state and government of the G7 underlined their commitment to maintaining a maritime order based upon the principles of international law, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This issue is of the utmost importance, and not only for the stability and security of the region, because, if the Law of the Sea is not observed in the China seas today, it will be in jeopardy in the Arctic, the Mediterranean and elsewhere tomorrow. In order to keep the risk of conflict contained, we must defend the Law and defend ourselves with the Law.

This is a message that France will continue to convey in international fora. It is a message that France will continue to support, by operating her ships and flying her aircraft wherever international law permits and as determined by operational need. Several times a year, French naval vessels pass through the waters in this region and they will continue to do so. For example, since the start of this year, our navy has already been deployed three times to defend our national-security interests, to implement our defence partnerships, to contribute to regional and international peace and security; that is why we guarantee that these deployments will continue regularly.

Secondly, dialogue and the peaceful settlement of disputes, backed by strengthening trust, are essential measures. Now, more than ever, it is necessary to establish dialogue between countries that oppose competing land claims. On this point, France – like many countries present in the room today – regrets that work on the Code of Conduct for nations in the South China Sea has not made any significant progress in recent years.

Finally, I believe that the third crucial element in managing change is steadfastness. We must stand firm against actions that undermine the foundations of the international order, stand firm against the rejection of the law and of dialogue. To those defence ministers from countries whose armies are engaged in a large number of foreign theatres: I can tell you that this steadfastness has a price, but we have no choice if we want to maintain order and security. This determination, which is primarily political, applies to transnational terrorism, which not only affects the Levant and Europe, but is also affecting Asia. This determination also applies in Asia with respect to North Korea, whose actions are a threat to international peace and security.

For France, the direct result of this principle of steadfastness is reliability. We have been a steadfast ally to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, against the backdrop of the 2014 crisis triggered by Russia, playing our part in the so-called reassurance measures and, in future, in organising a forward presence in the east. Likewise, we stand alongside our principal partners in this region of the world: India, of course, which has been our leading strategic partner in Asia since 1997; Malaysia, which is a historic partner of ours in Southeast Asia; of course Singapore, an acknowledged centre of stability in this part of the world; and also Australia. Our cooperation with Australia in the field of defence is set to increase considerably in the coming years and decades, both in the naval domain and beyond. I would add in this regard that the strengthening of our defence relations with Australia builds on a growing convergence of interests, as evidenced by our joint presence in a large number of theatres of operations.

In this globalised world of ours, there are no local or regional challenges; there are only common challenges of varying intensity. France, by providing itself with the means to defend itself, and by taking on an ambitious security role, intends to contribute to maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific. In order to be effective, this contribution must be designed to complement the actions of our partners, in particular India, Australia, the United States, Singapore, Malaysia and even Japan, among others.

We also wish to develop new partnerships with all the ASEAN countries. As a matter of fact, this very afternoon, I am going to Vietnam to strengthen our cooperation on defence.

France is a country of the European Union, and the conditions that I have cited – that is, respect for the rule of law, seeking dialogue and steadfastness when this rule is violated – are at the heart of responsible multilateralism which, in France's view, must be the hallmark of the European Union's action. It is for this reason that the situation in the China seas, for example, directly affects the European Union – it is not just in the interest of our economies that the freedom of maritime traffic needs to be respected.

Why shouldn't the European navies, therefore, coordinate to ensure a presence that is as regular and visible as possible in the maritime areas in Asia? I will shortly explain this proposal in detail to my European colleagues, and I hope that at the next Shangri-La Dialogue we will be able to assess the effects together.
Our long-standing ties with our Asian partners are being further strengthened and, on this basis, France will continue to support regional security in all its dimensions.
France is well placed to know that when international crises occur, they directly affect our security.

In this regard, the Indo-Pacific region has an opportunity to be globally protected from open conflicts. France will therefore play its part in our collective responsibility to preserve and strengthen the stability and security of this region.

Thank you for your attention.

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IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2018

The 17th Asia Security Summit will be held in Singapore on 1–3 June 2018.