by Ventsislav Bozhev
It has been more than a week since NATO was rocked by one of probably the biggest diplomatic crises in its history, after the French government recalled its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra amid new tripartite defence and security agreement between the US, Australia and Great Britain. The alliance, known as AUKUS, will be a platform to deepen cooperation between the three countries and it is designed to counter the influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region. AUKUS will also see Australia being given the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines with American and British technologies.
However, this prompted Canberra to scupper a multibillion-dollar deal it had signed with Paris for a large number of conventional diesel-electric attack submarines, saying it was no longer in Australia’s national interest. The move angered France, which recalled its ambassadors in Australia and the United States for consultations.
In the world of diplomacy this is the indication of extreme displeasure and disagreement from one country with the actions, decisions or statements of another. It is, in general, the penultimate step before the outright breaking off of diplomatic relations. The current crisis is, without any doubt, the most significant rift between NATO allies, and the first time in modern history France is recalling envoys.
And to a large extent, there is a reason to be dissatisfied.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the pact as a “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision” labeling it as a “stab in the back. In this sense, the claims of Paris are twofold – in terms of business and in terms of diplomacy.
First of all, the termination of the deal for diesel-electric submarines will be a huge blow not only for the French military-industrial complex, but also for the European arms industry in general. The agreement would have been the largest and most complex defence acquisition project in Australian history worth $66 billion. It was signed in 2016 with the French major industrial giant Naval Group, which in cooperation with local partners, had to build and procure 12 Attack-class submarines – a completely new class, designed to satisfy the specific needs of the Australian navy.
With Britain leaving the EU, much of the European military industry now remains dominated by French companies, with the Naval Group alone having more than 15 000 employees in a number of countries. Until now the termination of the deal has cost $1.1 billion in work on the submarines, which was covered by payments already made by Australia, but in the long term the losses might reach tens of billions in the form of lost profits and lost jobs.
As for diplomacy, the French felt affected, as the AUKUS platform came as a complete surprise and happened without any consultation or coordination, leaving them out of the picture after secret talks between the three English-speaking countries. French President Macron learned about AUKUS only at the last minute in an unusual for Biden move against the backdrop of aspirations that he would be a more predictable and proactive international partner.
Moreover, the situation is even more unpleasant, as the Indo-Pacific region is a place where France has many interests. There are more than 1,5 million EU citizens in the French overseas territories – the islands of Reunion, Mayotte, New Caledonia and French Polynesia. In this regard, the submarine deal with Australia was one of the cornerstones of both the French and EU strategies for the Indo-Pacific.
Furthermore, Paris has always proved to be a reliable partner with global thinking and a willingness to engage military when needed. Something that has been obvious since 2012 and the fight against radical jihadism in Africa. This makes Washington’s actions even more painful, especially if we consider the fact that France has been America’s oldest ally ever since the American Revolution.
However, there is a problem for France here – the American relations with Australia are just as good, and for the Australians themselves, considering the current regional dynamics, a multilateral agreement with fellow English speaking states is more logical than bilateral cooperation with Paris only. First of all there is a purely cultural and historical understanding between the US, Australia, Great Britain as well as Canada and New Zealand taking the form of agreements such as CANZUK in the field of economics and Five Eyes – in the field of intelligence sharing.
On the other hand, according to Canberra, the EU takes a soft and compromising position towards China. In Europe many countries see Beijing as a potential investor as well as a partner on issues such as trade and climate change, while at the same time the Australians find themselves under constant pressure over the aggressively expanding regional claims of China. This includes political interference, cyberattacks against Australian government institutions, a trade war, militarisation of South China Sea, which is backed by an unprecedented expansion of the Chinese navy.
In this sense, it should probably come as no surprise that the government of Prime Minister Morrison preferes the US-British proposal. Not only from a practical point of view, as the nuclear submarines offer much greater capability than conventional ones, and will be accompanied by technologies for the use of long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, but also because the United States seem significantly more committed to counter China.
More than a decade after the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” Washington seems serious about moving away the focus of its foreign policy from the Middle East and the war on terror toward Asia and building a coalition to contain growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
This continued through the Trump administration and is currently culminating in Biden’s actions. As soon as he took office he breathed a new life into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (The Quad), a strategic dialogue between the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, and also strengthened the overall American military presence in the region. AUKUS comes as a logical next step of these actions. Through the agreement the US, Australia and Great Britain actually took a controlled risk to damage in the short term the relations with France at the expense of potential long term benefits of containing China.
It’s clear that the rift with Paris will not last long, despite the initial sharp diplomatic reactions. In a sense, there is a logic to keep the idea of AUKUS a secret, as otherwise it would lead to French sanctions, threats and attempts to sabotage the negotiations, leading to deterioration of relations that would have probably lasted for months. Now the government of Macron is facing a fait accompli, and the response tools are limited to diplomatic options only. A more aggressive stance would seem like an exaggerated reaction and would be catastrophic for the relations between the two countries. Something that France will definitely not benefit from.
At this moment what Washington needs to do is compensate its old friend and ally.
The first signs are already present, as Macron and Biden spoke by telephone on September 22, at the request of the latter, and the two agreed to meet face to face in October. One of the options for compensation has already been hinted at, as the White House communiqué after the conversation announced that the United States would commit more support for France’s counterterrorism operations in the Sahel region.
Earlier this year, Macron said he would withdraw more than half of the French military forces there, and it is likely that the financial and operational burden from now on will be shared equally with the Americans, who also have bases in the region.
There are surely other options for Biden to compensate, but it should happen in a visible, delicate way with enough finesse, so as to calm Paris but also not to undermine the confidence of the other allies in American support. Especially after the controversial way the withdrawal from Afghanistan took place, leaving the country in the hands of the Taliban.
After all, it is never good for a president to be known as someone who „stabs in the back.“
This article first appeared in Bulgarian on Webcafe