A landmark submarine deal may be aimed at China, but it has upset France

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Fittingly for any story involving submarines, there’s a lot more to it beneath the surface. A virtual presentation was held Wednesday with the Prime Ministers of Australia, Britain and Canada. President Biden revealed a new 3-way Defense Alliance that will tighten cooperation in information and technology on many fronts. The agreement’s core was based on the new deal to build Australia a fleet nuclear-powered submarine fleet by exchanging nuclear submarine technology with Canberra.

The subtext was clear. Biden’s administration, acting in part on the analyses of its predecessors, hopes to fortify U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of China’s expanding naval might. Biden stated that “we need to be capable of addressing both the present strategic environment and its potential evolution, as the future of each one of our countries and the entire world depends upon an Indo-Pacific free and open, flourishing and enduring in the coming decades.”

The new pact is a major move. This technology was previously shared only with Britain as part of an over a decade-old Cold War Agreement. By accepting this American assistance, Australia is counting on a sustained, long-term U.S. commitment and somewhat yoking its China strategy to that of Washington. Britain is eager to improve its post-Brexit international credentials and will happily play the part of the junior partner. “This is a powerful answer to those who thought the US was pulling back and the propaganda claiming Washington wasn’t a reliable ally,” tweeted Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Britain’s House of Commons, adding that it “makes the pivot to Asia, for both Britain and the US, a reality.”

In Beijing, the angry reaction was swift and predictable. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the agreement as “extremely irresponsible” and a reflection, yet again, of an “outdated Cold War mentality.” Zhao said the new alliance “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, aggravated the arms race and hurt international nonproliferation efforts.”

But Chinese officials weren’t the only ones who were miffed. The “AUKUS” agreement has almost equally incensed France, which saw Australia essentially walk away from a deal it awarded to French bidders in 2016 to build a new fleet of diesel-powered submarines. Some Australian politicians and analysts claim the project had its logistical and technical issues and costs were spiraling. France may seek to recover tens or billions of dollars it lost when Australia broke its contract. This could lead to an extended international dispute.

Beyond the collapse of a lucrative deal, French officials were outraged by the manner in which it all played out, saying they were blindsided by the Australian decision and unaware of the months of negotiations between the three “Anglo” powers. “It’s a stab in the back,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French radio on Thursday. “We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed.”

The French disquiet extended to the Biden administration, which shepherded through the new arrangement. In a joint statement with French Defense Minister Florence Parly, Le Drian argued that the United States was demonstrating “a lack of consistency, which France can only notice and regret.” He pulled fewer punches speaking to French media, arguing that the “unilateral and brutal” move was something “[former president Donald] Trump would do.”

French commentators cast the development as a serious blow to transatlantic ties, one that should compel policymakers in Paris to intensify their push toward “strategic autonomy.” Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States, suggested that mid-20th-century French statesman Charles de Gaulle would have responded to this moment by opening a dialogue with Beijing.

Philippe Etienne, the current French ambassador in Washington, was more circumspect: He observed on Twitter how events this week coincided with the 240th anniversary of a French naval victory over the British in the Chesapeake Bay, which paved the way for the decisive American defeat of the British at Yorktown that clinched U.S. independence. A planned Friday evening reception organized by the French Embassy to commemorate that battle was canceled.

The Biden administration is counting on bruised Gallic egos to heal sooner rather than later. The pact serves as a reminder how Washington’s interests differ from theirs and the possibility that the European Union will have to take a back seat while the United States moves its strategic focus towards Asia. For Brussels, the timing of the AUKUS announcement was doubly unfortunate, as it coincided with the E.U.’s own planned release of its strategy for what policymakers now dub the “Indo-Pacific.” Biden is set to host an in-person meeting of the “Quad” — an alliance involving Japan, Australia and India — at the White House next Friday.

“It’s a reality check on the geopolitical ambitions of the EU,” a European diplomat told Politico Europe, adding that even though it’s unsettling that “somehow [European powers] don’t manage to be seen as a credible security partner” for the United States and Australia, “we shouldn’t make too much of the Indo-Pacific strategy: The EU is not a Pacific player.”

The Atlantic’s Tom McTague argued that beyond the French tantrums, we may be seeing a slight reconfiguration of Western geopolitics, as the United States prioritizes confronting the perceived threat of China. “The shocks of Trump and Brexit in 2016 — the year Australia signed its original submarine deal with France — have led, inadvertently and circuitously, to today’s world, where a political consensus now exists in the U.S., Britain, and Australia that Chinese power must be contained,” he wrote. “Taken together, the end of the war in Afghanistan, the pivot against China, and the prioritization of the old Anglo alliances over the EU are all grand strategic moves.”

Tensions with China are bound to mount. Chinese state media warned Australia that it was now an “adversary.” An editorial in the provocative, state-run Global Times said that “possessing nuclear-powered submarines will become a universal temptation. The world needs to prepare for the arrival of a ‘nuclear-powered submarine fever.'”

But the United States and its allies are, on many fronts, reacting to the increasingly expansionist and bellicose tactics of China under President Xi Jinping. “Xi’s hard line, plus a political system which trucks no disagreement at home and abroad, means that in the process Beijing has alienated many of its neighbours in the region,” wrote Richard McGregor of the Lowy Institute, a leading Australian think tank. It is not surprising that countries like Australia or Japan seek out ways to control China’s rise. South Korea, and other south-east Asian countries are also looking for ways to manage China’s rise in different ways. The U.S. is indispensable in all of their calculations.”

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