The New AUKUS Alliance Is Yet Another Transatlantic Crisis for France

September 17, 2021

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian could not hide his anger: “This is a stab in the back.” In Paris, Australia’s decision to cancel the A$90 billion contract with France for 12 conventional submarines came as a total shock. The new deal in which Australia will instead build nuclear-powered submarines with the United States and the United Kingdom marks the creation of a new “AUKUS” alliance. While this is celebrated in Washington and London as a remarkable success for closer cooperation against Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, it will also have serious implications on the trust between France and its three partners. At the transatlantic level, it also illustrates, once again, the absence of coordination by the United States with its EU and continental European partners on the Indo-Pacific.

The importance of the submarines contract for France cannot be understated. Negotiated between 2014 and 2016, it led to a “strategic partnership” that was supposed to constitute the framework of French-Australian relations for the next 50 years. It was a key piece of the Indo-Pacific strategy structured around the Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis that President Emmanuel Macron promoted in 2018 in Sydney. More than a mere defense contract, it was a powerful symbol that France aimed to be a credible actor for the security of the region through a multi-partnership approach. The feeling of betrayal is as high today as the enthusiasm was at the time.

Australia had expressed frustrations over the past months about the rising costs and delay in the fulfilling the contract, and also because of the fading perspectives for local industry and jobs. The cancellation, though, does not seem to stem from these issues, as the Australian government reaffirmed its commitment to the strategic partnership during the Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s official visit to Paris in June and the Inaugural Australia-France Foreign and Defense (2+2) Ministerial Consultations on August 30. More plausibly, the deterioration of China-Australia relations and of the regional security environment since 2016, Australia’s new position on nuclear-powered submarines, and the offer made by Washington and London to Canberra as an alternative led to the choice to scrap the French deal. By accepting this deal, Australia is counting on a sustained and long-term U.S. commitment and aligning its Chinese strategy with that of Washington.

While Australia’s decision on the submarines is an issue in itself, the AUKUS alliance may have deeper implications for French-U.S. and French-U.K. relations. Le Drian said that “this unilateral, brutal and unpredictable decision looks a lot like how Trump used to act.” In fact, it is seen in Paris as a confirmation of the continuity between different U.S. administrations: absence of consultation with European partners, active competition led by the United States in areas where France has key economic and industrial interests, and a clear preference for the “anglo-saxon” world. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of the Armed Forces, in an joint official communiqué, underline that “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia – at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or our respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law – shows a lack of coherence that France can only regret.”

Perhaps even more disconcerting from a French perspective, the creation of AUKUS is presented by the three countries involved as something that all in the transatlantic community should rejoiced about. The total disconnect between the celebratory announcements in Washington and London and the bewilderment in Paris only adds to the impression that there are first-class and second-class allies with regard to what is considered as the top priority in U.S. foreign policy. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell declared that the EU, which published its own Indo-Pacific Strategy on the same day the AUKUS was announced, “was not informed” about the new security pact. For the United Kingdom, the decision seems to confirm the effort to get closer to the United States even at the expense of its closest European security partner. In parallel, the post-Brexit EU has lost significant influence in the Indo-Pacific and diminished its strategic value as a partner for Washington.

The new trilateral agreement results in part from a mutual frustration between the United States and its EU partners. From Washington’s perspective, the EU is too soft on China, and from a European perspective, the United States is acting too aggressively on China. The EU therefore aimed to develop its own strategy for the Indo-Pacific and to deepen its own ties with the countries of the region.

For France, it is important to show that the concept of “puissance d’équilibre” (balancing power) should not be interpreted as unreliability in the competition with China, but rather as a strategic advantage, allowing regional powers to diversify their partnerships outside of the U.S.-China competition. For instance, Japan is strengthening its military cooperation beyond the United States and perceives France as a key ally, sharing the same vision of the Indo-Pacific. In May the first large-scale military exercise in Japan involving U.S., French and Japanese ground troops took place. France also recently engaged in some of the military exercises organized by the Quad countries. If other regional powers, just like Australia, react to China’s growing assertiveness by increasingly siding with the United States, the French position will become more difficult to sustain. The interconnections between the transatlantic and transpacific alliances will become a more significant part of its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Different options to overcome this crisis may emerge in the short and medium term. While President Joe Biden has said that he is committed to cooperating with France in the Indo-Pacific, he needs to show that he is ready to engage with the consequences of the AUKUS announcement in Paris. Inviting Macron to Washington to discuss this issue could be a positive first step, but it would not be sufficient. France will certainly seek to leverage this to gain something in addition to the anticipated cancellation fees from Australia. More predictably, it will double down on European strategic autonomy, as it sees this event as the latest confirmations that European interests are at risk of being collateral damage in the global great-power competition between the United States and China. This ambition, however, needs to be supported by capabilities to decide and act autonomously, which is far from being the case today. France is the only EU country with a real military presence in the Indo-Pacific, and it has sought to cooperate more with Germany and The Netherlands. Now it remains to be seen whether and how Paris will manage to “Europeanize” the issue.