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AUKUS, a Golden Opportunity for “Global Britain”?

ARTICLES - 23 September 2021

The Australia-UK-US pacific security pact - AUKUS - has been greeted with anger across France. France’s reaction is both due to Australia’s decision to cancel a five-year old contract with France to build diesel-power submarines and because it officially found out about AUKUS a couple of hours before it was announced. This led to France recalling its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington D.C. Interestingly, however, France did not recall its ambassador from London. Why is that?
 
This is partly because the UK is only playing what France sees as a minor role in AUKUS. The new nuclear tech submarines will be US-designed. Australia, meanwhile, is doing the buying. Still today, it is not entirely clear what role, if any, the UK played at the start of the US-Australia talks (although according to the British newspaper The Times, the Australians first approached the British about a new nuclear submarine deal. The UK then facilitated the discussion between the US and Australia).
 
France also sees the UK’s role as opportunistic. Over the weekend, France’s Foreign Minister Le Drian said the UK was guilty of its "usual opportunism". For the French government, the UK’s decision was motivated by two things: first, the need to show unfailing support to the United States and second, to score an easy political win for Global Britain by, in reality, doing very little.
 
Yet, despite this, the consequences of AUKUS could be severe for the Franco-British relationship. It has soured an already bad relationship and is yet further evidence of the growing distance, and distrust, between these two neighbours.

AUKUS - a string to Global Britain’s bow

There is a lot of speculation about why the UK decided to strike a pacific security pact with the US and Australia. 
 
The first reason is undoubtedly about making a reality of post-Brexit and doing more in the Indo-Pacific - something the UK promised it would do after Brexit. The UK’s Integrated Review, the UK’s blueprint for Global Britain published in March 2021, mentions the Indo-Pacific about 30 times - with the government making clear that it intends to have the "broadest and most integrated presence" of any European nation in the Indo-Pacific. At the very least, AUKUS, along with the UK’s decision to send an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, makes that ambition a little bit more concrete.

The first reason is undoubtedly about making a reality of post-Brexit and doing more in the Indo-Pacific.

Second, it is about working closely with your allies. The Integrated Review talks about the UK’s special relationship with the United States, but also its close partnership with Australia. Australia, the US and the UK, together with Canada and New Zealand, are also part of an alliance called the Five Eyes. The UK is also likely to be responsible for training the Australian military so they can use the new nuclear subs.

Third, it is about developing joint technologies across the UK, US, and Australia to protect undersea cables by using artificial intelligence and quantum communications. This is particularly important given that China and Russia are investing in cyber and submarine technology. This, the UK claims, will benefit not only Australia, but also other countries in the Indo-Pacific. Speaking from the United States yesterday, Prime Minister Johnson said that AUKUS was "fundamentally a great step forward for global security. It's three very like-minded allies standing shoulder to shoulder and creating a new partnership for the sharing of technology". In other words, it could be seen as a basis to build upon - which could potentially include collaboration with other countries like France in the future.

The UK has accused France of "sulking" and "overreacting". Not only does AUKUS not prevent France from doing more in the Indo-Pacific, it is also in the region’s, and therefore France’s, own interest that Australia arms itself with the best form of protection. Plus, the French naval-building company, Naval Group, should not have messed up its "deal of the century" with Australia. 

The UK’s role in AUKUS seen from France: between opportunism and irrelevance

But France is not entirely buying it. Rather than evidence of strategic foresight, it sees the UK’s role as somewhere between opportunism and irrelevance.
 
For many in France, the UK’s decision to participate in this new Pacific security pact is another desperate attempt by London to show Washington that it can both be trusted - and should be the US’ partner of choice, particularly in tackling China’s growing assertion in the Indo-Pacific. It is also a confirmation that the UK’s foreign and security policy is increasingly being decided in Washington.

The timing has also raised eyebrows. If the UK does end up building part of the submarines, this work will most likely be carried out in Scotland or Northern England, two regions the Prime Minister is keen to invest resources in and create jobs. Even if it’s not the main driver, there is certainly a business element to the deal.

[France] sees the UK’s role as somewhere between opportunism and irrelevance.

As there is no military commitment in the agreement, AUKUS is unlikely to over-extend British resources. In other words, the UK’s role is either too small and too imprecise (at this stage) to worry about.

A bad time for Franco-British relations

Franco-British relations are not in a good place. For the past three years, their relationship has been marked by suspicion. Things are so bad in fact that Paris not only mistrusts the UK - it actively distrusts it.
 
This matters because it makes any reconciliation or détente cordiale more difficult. Whereas Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron’s phone call on Wednesday resulted in the promise for renewed commitment to work together including on supporting European initiatives in the Sahel, Prime Minister Johnson chose to joke about the situation by asking France to "donner un break" (give it a break).

Time for reconciliation

It will take time, goodwill and joint action to get confidence levels up to where they were and it is difficult to see how any significant reconciliation can happen before the 2022 Presidential election. But there are small steps the UK and France could take in the meantime.

For starters, the UK should show France it can be a trusted ally - through actions rather than words. The UK needs to explain to France what its priorities are and where France fits in them. This should be done regularly through bilateral meetings at ministerial but also at official levels. It should also explore ways to include France in new foreign policy formats. For example, by inviting France to a Five Eyes’ meeting - or creating a new US-UK-France grouping on the Indo-Pacific. 
 
France, in the meantime, will need to show that it is ready to start a new chapter with the UK. For example, it could organise a new summit to celebrate the Lancaster House Treaties (something that was supposed to happen in 2020, but was delayed because of Covid-19) - and use that to explore new ways of cooperating together.

 

Copyright: ALEX WONG / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

 

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