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Don’t Underestimate the AUKUS Rift With France

Paris doesn’t speak for Europe, but it can disrupt transatlantic ties.

By , the senior vice president for Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and , the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University.
Biden and Macron at NATO in Brussels
French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden talk at the NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 14. Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week’s surprise joint announcement by U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of a new military and technology pact among their three countries—AUKUS—dropped like a bombshell in capitals around the world. The genesis of the agreement was Australia’s requirement for a submarine that can handle the increasing reach and size of the Chinese Navy through the South China Sea into the Coral Sea and other waters off Australia. Canberra’s problem was that a French design for a new Royal Australian Navy submarine would have had difficulty meeting this requirement, procurement was not proceeding smoothly, and at the same time the threat was growing rapidly.

The solution is bold. The United States and Britain will share their highly sensitive nuclear propulsion technology with Australia to ensure that its navy has the capability to shore up deterrence in its part of the increasingly contested Indo-Pacific. The geopolitical payoff is big for Biden in the Indo-Pacific, where he needed momentum after the problematic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Japan, India, Vietnam, and other maritime states in the region are pleased with the development and have expressed support for AUKUS either publicly or privately. For Johnson, the pact completes the post-Brexit tilt of “Global Britain” to the Indo-Pacific and puts an end to the naive “golden era” of Sino-British closeness begun by Prime Minister David Cameron. AUKUS further enhances all three countries’ geopolitical position with expanded cooperation in areas such as supply-chain security and the development of advanced cybercapabilities.

Of course, bold strategic moves and new alliances have costs. Canada and New Zealand, the two other members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing relationship alongside Australia, Britain, and the United States, were unsettled. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Morrison that the new nuclear-powered subs would not be welcomed in New Zealand’s waters, though it is not clear how Wellington—long the weakest link among the Five Eyes—would know. In any case, neither Ottawa nor Wellington has requirements for deterrence capabilities in the Pacific comparable to Australia’s. And nothing in AUKUS diminishes the advantages they already receive from their Five Eyes status.

Last week’s surprise joint announcement by U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of a new military and technology pact among their three countries—AUKUS—dropped like a bombshell in capitals around the world. The genesis of the agreement was Australia’s requirement for a submarine that can handle the increasing reach and size of the Chinese Navy through the South China Sea into the Coral Sea and other waters off Australia. Canberra’s problem was that a French design for a new Royal Australian Navy submarine would have had difficulty meeting this requirement, procurement was not proceeding smoothly, and at the same time the threat was growing rapidly.

The solution is bold. The United States and Britain will share their highly sensitive nuclear propulsion technology with Australia to ensure that its navy has the capability to shore up deterrence in its part of the increasingly contested Indo-Pacific. The geopolitical payoff is big for Biden in the Indo-Pacific, where he needed momentum after the problematic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Japan, India, Vietnam, and other maritime states in the region are pleased with the development and have expressed support for AUKUS either publicly or privately. For Johnson, the pact completes the post-Brexit tilt of “Global Britain” to the Indo-Pacific and puts an end to the naive “golden era” of Sino-British closeness begun by Prime Minister David Cameron. AUKUS further enhances all three countries’ geopolitical position with expanded cooperation in areas such as supply-chain security and the development of advanced cybercapabilities.

Of course, bold strategic moves and new alliances have costs. Canada and New Zealand, the two other members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing relationship alongside Australia, Britain, and the United States, were unsettled. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Morrison that the new nuclear-powered subs would not be welcomed in New Zealand’s waters, though it is not clear how Wellington—long the weakest link among the Five Eyes—would know. In any case, neither Ottawa nor Wellington has requirements for deterrence capabilities in the Pacific comparable to Australia’s. And nothing in AUKUS diminishes the advantages they already receive from their Five Eyes status.

Europe has adjusted and must continue to adjust to the new strategic reality that the United States is repositioning itself from the Atlantic region to the Indo-Pacific.

The strategic cost is France. Its anger at being blindsided—and losing a major contract—suggests that AUKUS could conceivably undercut the Biden administration’s push to strengthen U.S. alliances in Europe. While no other major European power has aligned with France, European Union leaders, who in part owe their positions to French President Emmanuel Macron, have generally supported Paris’s position. It appears that the EU will decide to postpone by a few weeks the inaugural meeting of the new U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council that was due to be held in Pittsburgh on Sept. 29 in solidarity with Paris. Berlin, days away from an unusually close and unpredictable parliamentary election, is trying to keep issues away from the election, not bring them in.

The lack of strong support for France from its European partners illustrates just how far the European debate has shifted vis-à-vis China—something that was made clear by Norbert Röttgen, the current chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, in an interview with the German business publication WirtschaftsWoche. One excerpt is worth quoting in full:

“It is understandable that the anger [in Paris] is very great. But escalation toward the United States makes no sense—it increases the damage, and France also remains dependent on United States’ support in its foreign missions. The United States is and will remain indispensable for Europe’s security. The comprehensive AUKUS security pact … is a response to China’s growing military presence in the Indo-Pacific, its dominant posture, and its sanctions policy against Australia’s disliked behavior. For the United States and Australia, preventing Chinese dominance based on maritime military superiority is of paramount strategic importance. That Australia positions itself in the best way possible is ultimately also in Europe’s interest.”

Röttgen’s voice may not prevail in a future German government coalition, but it does indicate there will be limits to a French anti-AUKUS campaign.

The question now is how long the Franco-U.S. rupture will last, what it will cost to fix, and whether France can win support from its European partners. When Macron eventually speaks to Biden in the coming days, he may seek a formal acknowledgment of U.S. wrongdoing and eventual compensation for what his foreign minister called a “stab in the back.” That could take the form of financial support for the impacted French firms in addition to what Australia will pay for severing the contract or a request for additional U.S. forces and capabilities to support the French military in the Sahel region, where the United States had once contemplated reducing its military footprint.

More challenging, however, is Paris’s concerns that AUKUS represents a major blow to France’s global role, heightened amid a presidential election cycle. Paris may seek to deepen its long-standing defense procurement relationships with New Delhi and Jakarta to compensate for lost sales to Canberra and to emphasize new modes of diplomatic cooperation in the region, as underscored by Macron’s phone call with Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi following the submarine row. In Europe, Paris may leverage its upcoming rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2022 to influence the EU’s new Indo-Pacific strategy by giving greater policy weight to partnering with China and minimizing policy responses when Beijing behaves as a systemic rival.

Paris could also block consensus on a more proactive NATO strategy toward the Indo-Pacific at next year’s NATO summit and could slow, if not halt, bureaucratic processes regarding future U.S. participation in EU defense projects. In a further worrying sign, a potential French presidential candidate has recently called for France to respond to this great “humiliation” by considering removal of its forces once again from NATO’s integrated military command. (France withdrew from NATO’s military structures in 1966 and returned only in 2008.) It is unlikely that major states in Asia will have any incentive to join Paris in punishing the United States and Australia—or that France will align with China somehow. But France remains a major global player and capable of disruption and distraction. Even if contained, this will not be helpful to U.S. strategy.

Frustratingly, there was a way the Biden administration could have managed both the decision and the announcement in order to lower these strategic costs. France lost a $66 billion contract at the beginning of Macron’s reelection campaign and would have never easily accepted this decision. But Paris could have been asked to take a stronger role in the Indo-Pacific as part of a broader announcement. France shares interests with Australia, Britain, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific, has warships based in the region, and has the largest exclusive economic zone in the South Pacific, on which Chinese ships are increasingly encroaching. NATO may have been able to highlight its growing partnerships in the region as a sign of Western strategic strength as the alliance contemplates a larger role there with its forthcoming Strategic Concept. And it didn’t go unnoticed that the AUKUS announcement completely drowned out the release of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which aligns well with Biden’s approach to China. Were any interagency meetings held in the administration to consider how to soften the blow and manage the fallout?

The Biden administration seems stunned that the French government expressed such outrage. The days of superficially repairing the transatlantic relationship with warm speeches and visits have now passed. As Washington makes big strategic moves, it must work purposefully to bring its allies along, not needlessly antagonize them.

Having said this, Europe has adjusted and must continue to adjust to the new strategic reality that the United States is repositioning itself from the Atlantic region to the Indo-Pacific. The AUKUS pact announcement and this week’s summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—or Quad—are representative of this strategic reorientation. The United States is now trying to plug the gaps in the maritime domain against Chinese coercion in the same way that it plugged West Germany’s Fulda Gap, the most likely route for a Soviet invasion during the Cold War. Australia’s new submarine capabilities will give a huge edge not only to Australia but to the region as a whole, which is why AUKUS has been so broadly welcomed in capitals other than Paris and Beijing. But the reality during the Cold War was that the focus on Europe and the Fulda Gap led to mistakes in Asia. The Biden administration should not repeat that pattern in the reverse direction by neglecting European allies, who will still be needed to deal with Russia and, increasingly, with China.

Heather A. Conley is the senior vice president for Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair

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