Last Wednesday, President Joe Biden and his U.K. and Australian counterparts announced the formation of a new defense alliance among the three countries. In this alliance, known as AUKUS, Australia will receive access to American nuclear submarine-propulsion technology that had only previously been shared with the British.
In discussing the AUKUS deal, Biden and other officials have studiously avoided uttering the word “China,” but the point of the alliance is unmistakably to counter China’s growing naval power in the Pacific region, bolstered by its own growing fleet of nuclear submarines. “I do want to just underscore very clearly this partnership is not aimed or about any one country,” one senior official told the Washington Post. “It’s about advancing our strategic interests, upholding the international rules-based order and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” And who could possibly guess which country might be threatening U.S. strategic interests, the international order, or peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific?
The reaction from Beijing was predictably hostile: Chinese officials called the agreement irresponsible and accused the three countries of stoking an arms race. (This would be a fairer criticism were China not also escalating that arms race with its own naval buildup.) In a comment to Reuters, Chinese embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said that countries “should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties. In particular, they should shake off their Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice.”
But China was not the only outraged party. The deal also results in Australia canceling a $66 billion contract with France to purchase 12 diesel-powered submarines in favor of its new agreement with the U.S. And France reacted furiously, with its Washington ambassador tweeting that the U.S. and U.K. had “stabbed her in the back in Australia.” The French framed the move as a highly undiplomatic bolt from the blue. Pulling no punches, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was the sort of thing Donald Trump would have done. On Friday, President Emmanuel Macron recalled France’s ambassador from Washington for the first time since the establishment of Franco-American relations in 1786. The French ambassador to Australia was also recalled.
On Wednesday, officials from both countries said the French ambassador would soon return to Washington, after Macron and Biden spoke on the phone to smooth things over. Macron has reportedly asked for an apology from the U.S., but Wednesday’s statements did not elaborate on whether he had obtained one. Australia, on the other hand, is still getting the cold shoulder: Morrison says Macron has yet to take his calls, and France has not announced plans to return its envoy to Canberra.
France did not withdraw its ambassador from the U.K., but French officials did heap scorn on that country, describing its cooperation with America as a sign that Britain was acting as a “junior associate” of the U.S. In other words, not recalling the ambassador from London may have been intended as a troll move in itself, implying that the U.K. was too insignificant to merit such a severe response. U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson responded to the French outburst with characteristic tact, telling the French to “prenez un grip about this” and “donnez-moi un break.” Johnson was speaking from Washington, where he met with Biden and dined with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday. Keeping such company probably compounded the insult.
So why was France this upset? On the surface, it’s because of the canceled contract itself. France’s claim that it was completely taken by surprise is a bit much: Morrison said he had warned Macron back in June that Australia had serious concerns about whether the French subs would be sufficient to meet its strategic needs. Still, it was not entirely unreasonable for France to take umbrage, as neither Biden nor Morrison nor Johnson has claimed responsibility for not forewarning Paris of the announcement or taking steps to soften the blow.
As international-politics professor and Post columnist Daniel Drezner described it, Biden is doing a bad job of “gardening,” i.e., tending to our global relations by keeping other allied leaders in the loop as his administration makes and carries out its plans. The timing of the announcement was also inconsiderate, coming weeks before an election in France and just days before elections in Canada and Germany, two other key allies who were also caught off guard. For a president who campaigned on his ability to restore other countries’ trust in the U.S., Biden really should be more attuned to the importance of not blindsiding allied countries with major policy shifts.
From a broader angle, Paris is also peeved at being excluded from the alliance because of the implication that it is not valued as an Indo-Pacific power and strategic-defense partner. AUKUS appears to undercut Biden’s commitment to repairing U.S. relations with the E.U. and NATO after four years of Trump’s contemptuous disregard. It also overshadows the E.U.’s new Indo-Pacific policy, to which France has been a major contributor. European countries are rightly afraid that the U.S. is not a reliable partner in the long term, especially considering that at some point in the next decade, we will likely be governed once again by the Republican Party in its Trumpy, right-wing nationalist form.
The French accusation that the AUKUS announcement was a Trump-like move is perhaps hyperbolic, but ironically, this is the kind of major deal Trump would have liked to make — the kind he kept boasting about making but seldom actually did. It’s an actual, concrete strategic move against China; it signifies that the U.S. security umbrella is still unparalleled and highly coveted; and it involves the sale of billions of dollars in U.S. military technology. Pissing off the French would just be gravy — and best of luck to the conservative pundits and politicians trying to make political hay out of that.
That said, the trilateral alliance is a historic policy shift and strategic realignment. Before meeting with Morrison on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, Biden said: “The United States has no closer or more reliable ally than Australia.” This may have been an exaggeration for the sake of diplomatic flattery, but it speaks to the distinctly Pacific (but not necessarily pacific) orientation of Biden’s geostrategic focus. Australia is important not only because it’s a reliable, longstanding ally and a major trading partner, but because of its proximity to China and the Chinese sphere of influence. The U.S. and U.K. offer Australia the protection of advanced military technology, while Australia participates in projecting U.S. power in the Pacific to contain China’s ambitions.
Regardless of how France feels about this, the more important questions are whether it is a strategically wise decision, whether it makes conflict with China more or less likely, and whether the enhanced allied presence in the Pacific is worth the cost of escalating tensions with Beijing. Some Australian politicians see the adoption of U.S. submarine technology as a nuclear proliferation risk, undermining Australia’s commitment to nonproliferation. To be clear, the submarines Australia will receive will be nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed. Nonetheless, nuclear submarines run on highly enriched uranium, and some experts fear that this deal could set a bad precedent and encourage Iran to defy limits on its enrichment activities by claiming it is using uranium to power submarines.
Whether or not these proliferation concerns turn out to be valid, one thing is certain: AUKUS represents a major step in establishing a new world order for the 21st century, centered on the U.S.-China rivalry and the competing models of liberal democracy and authoritarian state capitalism. For the time being, France and other allies may feel snubbed at being left out, but it is unlikely that Biden has forgotten about them. The U.K. and Australia may be the linchpins of his strategy, but Europe, Canada, the East Asian democracies, and other allied countries will surely play supporting roles.
Still, as Biden works to reshape our global alliances for the new era, he could stand to be more mindful of “gardening.” Especially after the lessons of the Trump era, he must recognize that the costs of undercutting, ignoring, and surprising our allies can add up fast.