Earlier this month, the US, UK and Australia announced an unprecedented agreement to provide nuclear-powered submarines to the Australian Navy. The move provoked outrage from France, which had been negotiating the sale of conventionally-powered submarines to the Australians.
French ire led to the withdrawal of its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. This was particularly surprising given France’s strong political and security ties — not to mention historical, as America’s oldest ally — to both nations. Inexplicably, President Emmanuel Macron did not recall his ambassador to London, prompting some to posit that after Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, it didn’t matter as much.
The Raucous Sound of AUKUS
It’s also very likely that Macron, who has been Europe’s strongest advocate on behalf of a stand-alone European defense capability — i.e., less dependence on the US — did not want to alienate Britain in his efforts.
Prenez un Grip!
Leave it to Britain’s blunt-speaking prime minister, Boris Johnson, to succinctly lend some reality to the blow-up among allies. Speaking in Washington, DC, Johnson suggested it was “time for some of our dearest friends around the world to prenez un grip about all this and donnez moi un break” — to get a grip and give him a break. A “stab in the back” was how the French publicly described the situation following the announcement of the agreement.
Johnson has it right. This was not a betrayal of the North Atlantic alliance, nor France’s especially close ties with Britain or America, or its strong relationship with Australia. While there are unquestionably important strategic elements of this deal, it is a commercial one. Australia wanted to boost its naval defense capabilities in the increasingly competitive and dynamic Western Pacific.
France’s conventionally-powered subs would not have been state of the art, requiring periodic surfacing for refueling, and wouldn’t be available until 2035. Moreover, Canberra and Australian politicians had already begun to express reservations over these deficiencies and the exorbitant cost.
Enter the Americans, who apparently invited the British to join. In the world of diplomacy and international affairs, all issues are understood to be open for discussion and negotiation. Business is something else, however. Allies and adversaries regularly compete for business and commercial deals. Governments back their businesses and even add sweeteners from time to time to clinch the deal. It’s understood; everyone does it. It’s business — not personal and not political.
The surprise here is that Paris seemed to be caught unaware of the American-British offer. The French should have suspected others might be talking to the Australians, especially as their own deal was beginning to sour. Their embassies in Washington, London and Canberra, doubtlessly staffed with some of their top diplomats and intelligence and military personnel, should have picked up on it. That is what embassies are for, among other things.
What Is It Good For?
Political sensibilities aside, is this the right undertaking for the three countries? A somewhat qualified answer would be yes. US President Joe Biden has repeatedly made clear America will compete with China in the Western Pacific and around the world. To date, America has shouldered the lion’s share of the security responsibilities in that region, though Japan, South Korea, Australia, Britain and even France also play roles.
Providing the Australians with nuclear-powered subs greatly enhances their own defense capabilities and augments what the US and others are doing to shore up security in the Western Pacific.
It is a genuine security enhancement for the West, giving pause to the Chinese, who themselves possess about a dozen nuclear-powered subs, most dedicated to their ballistic missile submarine fleet. (It is important to note that the AUKUS deal will not provide Australia with nuclear weapons of any kind.)
So, Australian nuclear-powered submarines provide an excellent complement to both American and British nuclear-powered subs as well as those French nuclear submarines deployed to the region. Moreover, while the others deploy their submarines around the world, Australia will likely be confined to the Western Pacific, giving the Western allies a greater presence.
Other Asia-Pacific nations either hailed the deal or remained silent, the latter owing to sensitive trade and other economic arrangements with China they do not wish to jeopardize. After all, they saw what may have provoked all of this, namely China’s unusually harsh response to Australia’s call for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, including the still unproven lab leak theory.
Canberra was blasted with a torrent of shockingly virulent verbal attacks from Beijing, which then accused Australia of “dumping” its wines on China and imposed daunting tariffs on future imports. The result was a precipitous decline in Australian wine exports to China, down as much as 96% in the final quarter of 2020.
The response shocked the Australians, who have maintained strong and important trade ties with Beijing and had sought to remain out of the US-China wrangling. But that all changed after Beijing’s tough-guy actions. Anti-China sentiment is now at a peak in Australia’s Parliament and among the population. More importantly, the overreaction drove Canberra right back into the waiting arms of its long-time ally, the US. Beijing’s so-called wolf-warrior actions against Australia were uncalled for and most definitely counterproductive.
A Win for Biden and the US
France’s ruffled feathers notwithstanding, the AUKUS deal leverages one of America’s strongest assets in the competition with China, namely its ability to forge alliances and partnerships with nations around the world, based not only on shared interests but very often on shared values. China has no such alliance network — Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and a handful of others hardly amount to what the US has managed in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
It is perfectly consistent with Biden’s repeated assertion that he will forge stronger ties with our allies and work to strengthen alliance networks. No one should be surprised with this natural evolution, a win-win for all involved.
One Asian nation whose response and views will be critical to US interests is India. India is a member of a new, American-initiated group known as the Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US. New Delhi has distanced the AUKUS deal from the Quad but otherwise remained neutral in its response, though commentary ranges from strong endorsement to equally strong criticism and warnings of an Indo-Pacific arms race.
The latter may be a bit exaggerated. Australia already has submarines, and soon these will be nuclear-powered, allowing them to remain submerged much longer or even indefinitely, depending on whether their fuel is high or low-enriched uranium. The latter would require surfacing about every 10 years or so to refuel.
But that still leaves the question of France. One might have and, indeed, should have expected some heads up to the French in advance of the announcement. France is a core indispensable member of NATO and one of America’s most important allies.
The countries have already begun to patch up their tiff. Biden and Macron spoke last week and will meet next month when Biden attends the G-20 summit. The US president endorsed his French counterpart’s call for greater European defense autonomy, “consistent with NATO” objectives and obligations. Macron returned his ambassador to Washington.
Nevertheless, Washington would be wise to find some way to include Paris in this deal. If its underlying basis is security and strengthening alliances, then why not include this vital ally? France already possesses significant blue-water naval capabilities as well as genuine interests in the Pacific, with territories in French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna.
Moreover, the French could be brought in to supply or develop the nuclear-power trains for the Australian submarines using low-enriched uranium, which fuel France’s nuclear subs. (Britain and the US use high-enriched uranium.) The use of low-enriched uranium would also help keep AUKUS from potentially running afoul of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is better to have France on board the AUKUS fleet than not. The most awkward bit: What to do with the added “F”?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.