The new defence partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) [AUKUS] is a trilateral security pact which entails “cooperation on a range of emerging security and defence capabilities, which will enhance joint capability and interoperability”[i] in the Indo-Pacific region. The AUKUS will focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and strengthening undersea capabilities. The critical aspect of the pact is the sharing of nuclear-powered submarine technology by the US and UK to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. This has resulted in Australia canceling its submarine contract with Naval Group, a major French defence manufacturer, which was signed in 2016 and was estimated to be worth approximately €56 billion.
The move by the three countries was described as ‘brutal, unilateral and unpredictable’[ii]and “stab in the back”[iii]by the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The reaction from France is on grounds that it was not informed while the defence partnership was formulated. The now-cancelled submarine deal with Australia was a key aspect of the French Indo-Pacific policy. Therefore, the manner in which the new deal and the partnership was declared came as a shock to the French administration. The declaration also comes at a politically sensitive time with President Emmanuel Macron keen to demonstrate his international achievements ahead of the 2022 presidential election.
The majority of the French anger seems to be directed towards Australia and the US with the French administration recalling its ambassadors from both countries for further consultations. The reaction also stems from the fact that France is a resident Pacific power with overseas territories like French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia and a very large exclusive economic zone in the region. It has well-developed military capabilities and an advanced defence-industrial base which makes Paris a key player in the region. Strategically, France is also an important key ally of the US in the Indo-Pacific and combined with the EU’s new policy, it has a very significant role to play in the region.
France has received support from the European Union (EU), where both the Presidents of the European Council and the Commission termed the treatment of France as “unacceptable”. Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen said, “there are a lot of open questions that have to be answered. One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable, so we want to know what happened and why. And therefore, you first clarify that before you keep going with business as usual”[iv]. The EU Foreign Ministers, in a meeting on 21 September 2021, also expressed their disappointment. The High Representative Josep Borrell said that the Ministers expressed solidarity with France and this pact runs counter to the call for greater cooperation with the EU in the region. While expressing the regret over exclusion of European partners who have strong presence in the Indo-Pacific, such as France, High Representative added that the region required “more cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation”.[v]
These reactions also reflect the current state of Transatlantic Alliance. The Alliance appears to have been disregarded once again with the key European allies being kept in the dark by the US. For many member-states, the point of contention is not the cancellation of the submarine deal, rather it is the way in which the pact was negotiated and declared, and that the Biden administration is not serious regarding the European concerns. This stream of thought was evident in the response of the European Council’s President Charles Michel when he said that this cannot be just viewed as a matter of French strategic interest rather it has been a pattern of the last four American Presidents to disregard European allies and their respective interests -George W. Bush’s decision to wage war in Iraq; Barack Obama’s decisions related to Syria with negative impact on Europe; Donald Trump’s opposition to European integration; and Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan[vi]. Also, this is the third time in the recent months that the US administration has taken a step that has led to the questioning of the relevance of Transatlantic Alliance – first was the lack of operational coordination in Afghanistan, and second was the disappointment among the eastern European countries due to the US accommodation of German interests in the Nord Stream-2 project.
In an attempt to bridge the ties, Presidents Biden and Macron agreed that “the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners”.[vii] Adding that, going forward, a decision has been taken to open “in-depth consultations” on matters of strategic interests, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence and proposing concrete measures towards common objectives. Following the consultations, the French Ambassador is expected to return to Washington DC. However, there is no clarity about when the French Ambassador to Australia could be back in Canberra. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has justified the defence pact highlighting that he had discussed with France that conventional submarine was not going to meet Australia’s requirements. Adding that Canberra “would be making a decision based on Australia’s national security interests”.[viii]
Despite the reactions from France and the EU, AUKUS, for the three partners (Australia, UK and US), represents a geostrategic opportunity. For the US, it is an avenue to re-assert and re-position itself in the Indo-Pacific after the contentious withdrawal from Afghanistan. For the UK, it is representative of its Global Britain policy in the Indo-Pacific and a chance to project itself as a credible power in the region. For Australia, it is a chance to fortify its position in the region. It also enhances the geopolitical position of the three allies with enhanced security cooperation and development of advanced cyber-capabilities. This pact has also reinforced the importance of the Indo-Pacific to global geopolitical recalculations.
While announcing the trilateral pact, President Biden said “We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region [Indo-Pacific] and how it may evolve…This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances, and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow.”[ix] He acknowledged that “France, in particular, already has a substantial Indo-Pacific presence and is a key partner and ally in strengthening the security and prosperity of the region.” However, the French reaction to the announcement was due to the fact that the country was left in the dark when the pact was negotiated and declared, and the cancellation of the submarine deal with Australia. Since then, the two partners have decided to move forward after a call between President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Beyond the immediate French concerns, there are two larger issues that needs to be taken into account. First, is concerning the state of Transatlantic relations. The relations continue to be under stress, as the declaration of AUKUS comes at the heels of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan -in both the instances the alliance members have raised concerns about insufficient consultation between Washington and its partners. Second, is the impact on EU-Australia relations. Both partners are in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement. As the EU Commission President said in a statement that it cannot be “business as usual” and the fact that the FTA requires unanimity among the 27 EU members, whether AUKUS will become an issue in negotiations is yet to be seen.
*Dr Ankita Dutta is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i]‘Australia to Pursue Nuclear-Powered Submarines Through New Trilateral Enhanced Security Partnership’, Media Statement, Prime Minister’s Office, Australis, 16 September 2021, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/australia-pursue-nuclear-powered-submarines-through-new-trilateral-enhanced-security, Accessed on 24 September 2021
[ii]Al Jazeera, 16 September 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/16/france-accuses-biden-of-sinking-australia-submarine-deal, Accessed on 24 September 2021
[iv]Politico, 21 September 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-charles-michel-biden-disloyalty-allies-aukus/, Accessed on 25 September 2021
[v]‘Informal EU Foreign Ministers meeting: Remarks by the High Representative Josep Borrell at the press conference’, 20 September 2021, EEAS, //eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/104404/informal-eu-foreign-ministers-meeting-remarks-high-representative-josep-borrell-press_en, Accessed on 25 September 2021
[vi]Politico, 21 September 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-charles-michel-biden-disloyalty-allies-aukus/, Accessed on 27 September 2021
[vii]‘Joint Statement on the Phone Call Between President Biden and President Macron’, Elysse, Paris, 22 September 2021,https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2021/09/22/joint-statement-on-the-phone-call-between-president-biden-and-president-macron, Accessed on 27 September 2021
[viii]SBS, 26 September 2021, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/scott-morrison-standing-firm-as-france-accuses-australia-of-adultery-over-sub-snub/fb28348d-175f-4073-bcf6-d823d1247a42, Accessed on 27 September 2021
[ix]Briefing, White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/09/15/remarks-by-president-biden-prime-minister-morrison-of-australia-and-prime-minister-johnson-of-the-united-kingdom-announcing-the-creation-of-aukus/, Accessed on 29 September 2021