America’s subplot and Europe caught in the undertow
The AUKUS security partnership is much more than America and Great Britain sharing nuclear propulsion technology with Australia. AUKUS is a comprehensive defense arrangement that also includes the sharing of cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. While AUKUS allows the U.S. to expand its balancing coalition against China and has tremendous benefits for Australia, there are long-term consequences for Europe.
First, AUKUS addresses Australia’s immediate concerns about China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea and its Belt and Road initiative. Over the last several years, Australia has blocked Chinese companies from purchasing businesses and banned China’s Huawei from its 5G networks. In response, China has deployed aggressive wolf-warrior diplomatic tactics that range from imposing tariffs on Australian food and coal to include accusations of war crimes and racism and boycotting Australia after it called for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. AUKUS increases the costs for China to continue pressuring Australia and other states in the region.
Second, AUKUS will extend Australia’s multi-decade relationship with the U.S., which is traced to the early 1950s when the two signed a mutual defense agreement with New Zealand. AUKUS also places the “Quad,” or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue at the center of the U.S.-led balancing coalition against China.
While many believed the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan showed that the U.S. was becoming less engaged in the world, AUKUS reveals the opposite. The Biden administration plans to devote American resources to engaging in an intense economic and security competition with China. America’s success or failure rests on multilateral cooperation and diplomatic engagement with allies and partners. The U.S. had to withdraw from Afghanistan and end the war in Iraq to mitigate the number of distractions getting in the way. Expect more flexible and informal multilateral arrangements and fewer unilateral military interventions.
Consequently, the Biden administration believes America’s geopolitical competition with China is a much greater priority than NATO and Europe. The fact that the U.S. did not hesitate to undercut fellow NATO member France’s $66 submarine deal with Australia is evidence that America’s decade-long effort to pivot to Asia is a reality. Also, undermining France inhibits President Emmanuel Macron from pursuing European strategic autonomy and has made France look like a mid-level power.
Pushing France aside sends an important and ominous message to America’s NATO allies: they must decide whether they are aligned with the U.S. in its geopolitical competition with China. If they are, they must balance against China on America’s terms. If not or if they trade sensitive dual-use technologies and artificial intelligence with China against U.S. interests, they will be cut off. The U.S. now judges its NATO allies through a transactional lens.
France and Germany are in a tough spot. While many NATO and E.U. members are inclined to align with the U.S., France, and Germany have large commercial relations with China they simply cannot walk away from. Under Angela Merkel, Germany expanded trade with China and steered E.U. policy toward the Asia-Pacific. Macron revived E.U. commercial relations with China and in 2019 struck $15 billion in commercial deals with President Xi, much to the chagrin of the U.S.
Expect Germany and France to remain above the fray for as long as possible. As Macron stated before the announcement of AUKUS, “A situation to join all together against China, this is a scenario of the highest possible conflictuality.”
Germany and France prefer to maintain good relations with both the U.S. and China. As NATO members, they benefit from the American security umbrella. As E.U. members, they benefit from the economic opportunities afforded by expanding commercial relations with China.
When Biden was elected, there was an expectation in some European capitals that he would shore up transatlantic relations. As Biden said, “America is Back.” But the honeymoon is over and geopolitical realities are apparent. It was one thing for America’s European allies to be worried about Trump’s “America First.” However, they did not expect Biden to move so quickly to rebalance American resources toward containing China and undercut a NATO member in the process.
The level of indifference by America shows that Europe has become less important in the U.S. geopolitical calculus. Besides, the U.S. can get away with relegating NATO to the sidelines because most members have no other security alternative. While China can claim to have driven a wedge between the U.S. and Europe, make no mistake, with AUKUS, the U.S. is working overtime to contain China through multilateral engagement. And it is willing to throw a NATO ally under the bus. C’est la vie.
Chris J. Dolan, Ph.D., is professor of political science and director of the Master’s of Science in Intelligence and Security Studies program at Lebanon Valley College
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