Analysis: the western alliance is the main victim – and China will win out unless US can soothe Paris’s anger
Fury in Paris at Australia’s decision to tear up plans to buy a French-built fleet of submarines is not only a row about a defence contract, cost overruns and technical specifications. It throws into question the transatlantic alliance to confront China.
The Aukus deal has left the French political class seething at Joe Biden’s Trumpian unilateralism, Australian two-facedness and the usual British perfidy. “Nothing was done by sneaking behind anyone’s back,” assured the British defence minister, Ben Wallace, in an attempt to soothe the row. But that is not the view in Paris. “This is an enormous disappointment,” said Florence Parly, the French defence minister.
As recently as August, Parly had held a summit with her Australian counterpart, Peter Dutton, in Paris, and issued a lengthy joint communique highlighting the importance of their joint work on the submarines as part of a broader strategy to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region. Given Dutton’s failure to tell his French counterparts of the months of secret negotiations with the US, the only conclusion can be he was kept out of the loop, was deeply forgetful, or chose not to reveal what he knew.
There was no forewarning. France only heard through rumours in the Australian media that its contract was about to be torn up live on TV in a video link-upbetween the White House, Canberra and London.
Moreover, the move was presented not only as a switch from the diesel-powered subs France was building to longer-range nuclear vessels, but as part of a new three-way security pact for the region that would develop new technologies. Perhaps someone had decided the French could not be trusted to join this alliance. Perhaps there were sensitivities around US-UK tech transfer in nuclear propulsion and the other areas of tech cooperation, such as undersea drones, artificial intelligence and quantum.
To add insult to injury, Biden timed the announcement for the day before the EU was to publish its long-planned Indo-Pacific policy. The EU said it was not consulted in advance, although Pentagon officials said otherwise.
Australia said it had given ample warning that design delays meant it could look elsewhere by September, and France’s Naval Group was in fact given until September to revise its plans for the next two years of the project.
But in reality, Australia was already working on plan B with the US. To French eyes, Biden had showed – and not for the first time – that he will put the US national interest first.
The language emanating from Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister and the man behind the original 2016 deal with Australia, is unprecedented. “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do. I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies. It’s really a stab in the back.”
Emmanuel Macron, too, will be livid. He received Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, on 15 June at the Élysée Palace, referring to the contract for the 12 submarines as a “pillar [of] the partnership and of the relationship of trust between [the] two countries. Such a programme is based on the transfer of knowhow and technology and will bind us for decades to come.”
Coming on top of the mishandled US exit from Afghanistan, a Nato operation in which allies had little say, France and the EU have come to terms with the fact that Biden is not all he seemed when he travelled to Brussels to promise America was back.
Doubtless the US believes French ire will subside, or is a piece of artifice ahead of the French presidential elections. France is a major arms exporter, and the loss of an estimated €10bn (£7.25bn), once penalty clauses are included, hardly dents this industry. A state visit to Washington for Macron, a few contracts directed at the French Naval Group in Cherbourg, some Biden charm, an assurance that this was a purely Australian military decision based on a changed threat assessment, and all can be smoothed over.
But that is not the language emanating from Paris or Brussels. France points out that the engine was designed specifically as a diesel to meet Australian specifications and it could have offered nuclear-powered subs.
But France’s exclusion shows the extent to which the US does not trust it with nuclear technology. This is a big win for Boris Johnson, and those that said post-Brexit Britain would remain more important to the US than the EU, even if it is going to alarm the pro-China business lobby in the UK.
Macron now has no option but to restate the case for greater European strategic defence autonomy, a subject less evidenced in real life than the seminars devoted to it. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, on Wednesday promised in her state of the union address an EU defence summit, saying Europe has to acquire the political will to build up and deploy its own military forces.
Senior US officials in briefing on the Aukus deal seemed unaware of the offence it would cause, blandly saying the alliance “is not only intended to improve our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, but also to involve Europe, especially Great Britain, more closely in our strategy in the region”.
Washington, if it is wise, will work flat out to convince France it can still be a partner in the Indo-Pacific. If not, the only long-term beneficiary will be China.