The sale of a dozen conventional submarines in France to Australia in 2016 was already called the “decade of the century”. It will involve about 56 billion euros and years of work. So it is understandable that the French are angry that Australia scrapped the order after five years. But Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not announce last week that he is still opting for US nuclear-powered boats. With the United States and the United Kingdom, without the knowledge of France or the European Union, he also introduced an ambitious military alliance, ‘AUKUS’, which aims to counterbalance a China that is increasingly militarily and politically dominant in the Pacific.
So last week’s diplomatic crisis was more than a breach of contract or the loss of an industrial deal. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke of a “stab in the back”: it took months to prepare the deal, but the French remained in the dark. After France recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington – a far-reaching move among friendly nations – US President Joe Biden acknowledged on Thursday that prior consultations were desirable.
For France, military cooperation with Australia was an important part of the Indo-Pacific strategy unveiled in 2018. The EU strategy for the region presented last week also emerges from this. With over one and a half million citizens in the region, France has some rights to speak: New Caledonia, an integral part of the republic, is Australia’s closest neighbor to the east. After the United States, France has the largest sea area in the world. With AUKUS, the French fear further Sino-American polarization that threatens the EU’s strategic and commercial interests. This fear is justified.
France’s sense of greater betrayal by the United States is telling, but also contradictory. France, the United States’ oldest diplomatic friend, has shown itself to be a good partner in the fight against terrorism, most recently in the Sahel. This is not how NATO partners treat each other, the criticism was understandable in Paris.
But it was Macron who declared the transatlantic alliance “brain dead” two years ago. Even during Donald Trump’s presidency, he warned that the new US president might be more polite, but that foreign policy under a Democratic rule would not change significantly. In a bipolar world, where the US is primarily focused on China, the EU and with it France will be sidelined. Thus, Europe would do well to build a certain degree of “strategic autonomy” through defense cooperation and a common foreign policy, as he has repeatedly stated. After the unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan decided by the Americans, it was not surprising that France was surprised that Trump’s successor Biden does not pay much attention to Europe.
The crisis of recent days underscores Macron’s right: if Europe wants to be heard, concerted action is indispensable. It is welcome that EU leaders have rallied behind Paris this week. It is reassuring that Biden and Macron are settled for now. But it remains important that serious work be done in Brussels on a geopolitical strategy in which European values and interests are central. Those still in doubt saw this week how the European Union could be crushed in the race between China and the United States.
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of September 24, 2021
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