France has presented itself as a great alternative to the “big-power” tussle between China and India for influence in the Indo-Pacific region. This is ideal for Sri Lanka as it looks to avoid being caught between the two neighbors for regional influence.
Over the last decade, France has been trying to gain ground in Sri Lanka. And it seems to be making gains. But its trade ties with the island nation remain weak; France sells only $133.9 million worth of goods and buys only $272.3 million from Sri Lanka. However, it has realized Sri Lanka’s geopolitical importance. Sri Lanka may be inclined to the European country as it strives to get out of the economic and humanitarian crises.
It has been facing a severe recession, high inflation, depleted reserves and an unsustainable public debt. Nilanthi Samaranayake, a visiting expert at the United States Institute of Peace, says Sri Lanka is in a difficult position economically. This has been compounded by an increased stressed regional environment due to strategic competition between the large powers. And Sri Lanka is also looking to reduce reliance on its neighbors.
Mathieu Droin, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Europe, Russia and Eurasia Programme, believes France also wants to propose a third way, or an alternative to the binary choice between China and the West, or US – it wants to be a balancing power. French President Emmanuel Macron, during his historic visit to Sri Lanka in late July, said countries should not have to choose or pick sides if they don’t want to.
Droin explained the intent of Macron’s visit was to make up for the lost time and keep up with the big powers (US, China and India). His visit as the first French president to visit Sri Lanka signaled a shift in France’s approach to the region. And France recognizes the Indo-Pacific as a priority. Its interests have been piqued by China boosting its economic, diplomatic, and military presence in the Indian Ocean.