Biden’s submarine deal is an own goal in the contest against China
The White House trumpeted the so-called AUKUSA deal between the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom as a win for enhancing the collective defense posture in the Indo-Pacific (with China the unspoken object of concern). But in truth it was more like an own goal.
The deal was tantamount to a stab in the back of France at a time when France very willingly has been involving itself in Indo-Pacific security in a manner that complemented American efforts and served American interests. Alienating France is pointless and counterproductive. It serves China’s interests far more than it does America’s.
At the heart of the AUKUSA deal is an agreement to provide Australia with nuclear submarines, presumably based on current U.S. submarines. The deal also involves sharing highly sensitive technology, which presently the U.S. shares with the United Kingdom alone.
It meant breaking an enormous deal that Australia had signed to procure submarines from France, while also seeming to shut France out of the technology sharing partnership, an echo of France’s exclusion from the “Five-Eyes” intelligence sharing arrangement and the inner circle of the U.S. imperium that it represents.
For the French, it’s a blow to their naval industry, which is a strategic priority. Perhaps more importantly, it grates. Here is Washington broadcasting that the U.S.-UK-Australia troika is to be at the core of the Indo-Pacific security establishment. France reportedly was not even informed of the submarine deal until it made the news. Paris is reacting badly to the shoddy treatment, describing it as contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation agreements it has been striking with Canberra.
Why should Americans care about the French in the Indo-Pacific? France sees itself as an Indo-Pacific power, and with reason. The region is home to 1.6 million French citizens, and, thanks to its scattered colonies in the Indian and Pacific oceans, its Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) there total nine million square kilometers.
France also maintains a permanent force of 7,000 men and women in the Indo-Pacific theater, which is unique for a European nation. In the past two years, French President Emmanuel Macron has been making a big diplomatic push to align countries in the region with it (Australia and India chief among them) and all for the purpose of countering China.
While to some extent Paris has been offering itself as an alternative to the U.S., Macron has simultaneously made it clear that there is little daylight between France and the U.S. Basically, French efforts have complemented American ones and also provide countries such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam a way to join Team U.S.A. without doing so explicitly. There is nothing to lose for the United States in encouraging French activism in the Indo-Pacific, and a whole lot to gain. Alienating Paris, meanwhile, drives a wedge between Washington and a country eager to shoulder the burden.
France also happens to be Western Europe’s most capable military power. The United Kingdom presently is a close second, but treating it as America’s default best friend in the Indo-Pacific while apparently ignoring France seems unrealistic and anachronistic. France, for example, brings the European Union into the fray. Post-Brexit Britain does not.
French interests in the Indo-Pacific are the same as they were before the deal, suggesting that in the end nothing will change. Yet the Biden administration’s apparent insouciance regarding the value of building strong multilateral relationships that include a powerful ally is strange. Was it really impossible to make a deal that got Australia the submarines it wants and also avoided antagonizing France?
Michael Shurkin is director of global programs at 14 North Strategies and founder and president of Shurbros Global Strategies.