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France to boost ties with Asian countries


JAKARTA: France pledged to boost ties with Asian countries by offering "concrete projects" after it was blindsided by the AUKUS defence pact, which saw Australia ditching a commitment to buy French submarines.

Speaking during a two-day visit to Indonesia, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Indo-Pacific region would be at the heart of France's priorities when it assumes the presidency of the European Union in January.

"France is now determined to continue to act to increase the commitment and engagement of Europeans in the Indo-Pacific through some very concrete cooperation projects with our partners in the region, of course with Indonesia," Le Drian told a news conference after talks with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi.

Such cooperation covers sectors including security,environment, transportation, and higher education, he said.

"At the heart of this commitment is a vision of the Indo-Pacific which is free and open based on the rule of law and the respect for the sovereignty of every state and multilateralism," he said,alluding to China's growing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

France lost a $66-billion contract to sell submarines to Australia thanks to the AUKUS pact, which allows Canberra to build nuclear-powered submarines using technology provided by the United States.

Paris has since been trying to court Indo-Pacific powers, including India and Indonesia.

In July, Indonesia signed a defence cooperation agreement with France. Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto said his country was seeking to acquire France-made Rafale fighter jets and submarines.

Retno stressed the importance of technology transfers and joint production of defence hardware during talks with Le Drian.

"We discussed strengthening our bilateral meeting mechanism by involving the defence sector," Retno said, adding that the two countries' defence and foreign ministers would start regular meetings next year.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's defence minister had earlier said his country understands the reasons behind the US, Australia and Britain establishing the AUKUS security agreement, though at a forum at the weekend repeated concerns about an arms race in the region.

The trilateral security pact, formulated in part to respond to a rising China, has sparked regional worries given it allows for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. When asked about AUKUS at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue in Bahrain on Saturday, defence minister Prabowo Subianto said he understood why countries would move to secure their interests.

"Officially our position is that of course Southeast Asia should remain nuclear free, and the fear of course among Southeast Asian nations is that this will spark an arms race," he said. - dpa

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