France shifts HE collaboration to India in AUKUS era

The diplomatic fissure between France and Australia caused by the new AUKUS alliance, together with a move to diversify within Asia from collaborations with China, has led to French foreign ministry funding for university collaborations being redirected from Australia to push new French collaborations in India.

At the same time, French universities looking to internationalise have been looking to Singapore and Southeast Asia to build research partnerships in addition to their existing partnerships with China, as a way of diversifying from ‘overdependence’ on China.

The AUKUS trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced in September 2021 caused a diplomatic rift with France as it led to the cancellation of Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from France. The AUKUS pact has had far-reaching geopolitical implications as it was seen, in part, as a response to China’s emergence as a superpower in the Asia-Pacific region.

The relationship with Australia “went dark”, as French officials put it.

The AUKUS debacle has also had a knock-on effect on higher education as a just under €1 million (US$1 million) funding package allocated by Paris for research and student exchange alliances between French and Australian universities was earlier this year redirected to a new universities’ initiative with India known as the ‘Franco-Indian campus’.

“Universities do not deal with governments but with universities, but the overall geopolitical climate is having an impact,” said one French university representative just returned from India.

The thinking in Paris is that, with several long-established joint higher education projects with China, it is important to have “a strategy of attractiveness and visibility” for their universities for the whole Indo-Pacific region.

Initially this was envisaged as a two-pronged approach focused on Australia and India, but now Australia “is no longer in the picture”, according to officials, though suggesting Australia might return to the fold sometime in the future.

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