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France, America and the Indo-Pacific after AUKUS

ARTICLES - 20 September 2021

A "stab in the back"

France was violently shaken on Thursday, September 15, as it heard about the new US-Australia strategic partnership trampling over the relation that Paris and Canberra had been patiently building up over the past decade.

It was common knowledge that the French submarine contract was in trouble, but no one seemed to know that the United States had been working with the Australian government on an alternative option for several months. There was certainly no mention of it in the joint communiqué celebrating the strength of bilateral cooperation issued by Paris and Canberra as recently as August 30. American strategists like to talk about the "shock and awe" tactic, except that it’s usually in reference to bombing an enemy.

That said, the announcement of the new trilateral Indo-Pacific security partnership stemmed from well-considered strategic considerations, as much as American and British political expediency. Underneath the inelegant acronym AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) lies a desire to considerably increase the scale of military and technological cooperation between the three countries, with the main goal of countering China's ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. It’s not just about submarines - it’s also about interoperability and artificial intelligence. 

A cannon fired in the Indo-Pacific

This partnership also signals a considerable rise in the political power of the Anglosphere, often mistakenly referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in France. The importance of this is well known, especially in the discreet framework of intelligence exchanged between the Five Eyes ‘club’ (along with Canada and New Zealand). Indeed, the countries concerned very recently commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) treaty. As for London, its participation fits in perfectly with its post-Brexit Global Britain strategy. It may hurt the French, but it is not totally absurd for a senior American official to proclaim that they have "no better allies than the United Kingdom and Australia."

However, there will be a price to pay. Going forward, France will have trouble trusting Biden’s repeated commitment for greater EU involvement in the Indo-Pacific, as well as US desires for increased US-EU coordination alongside their allies in facing China. French Foreign and Defense Ministers, Jean Yves Le Drian and Parly, have rightfully denounced the "lack of consistency" in the American approach. Adding insult to injury, the American announcement was made the exact same day that the European strategy for the region was published.

Thursday’s event "only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy." 

The shock in Paris is at least equal to that felt when Obama turned away from Syria at the last minute in August 2013. It also inversely recalls what the United States felt in 2003 about the French attitude towards the invasion of Iraq. This time, however, it will take much more than a state visit, such as Hollande’s in February 2014, to repair the damage. 

Moreover, this comes only a few weeks after the crisis of confidence caused by the American withdrawal from Kabul. There is no doubt that Emmanuel Macron feels vindicated in his opinion that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO, even if he is actually talking about the Atlantic Alliance) is in a critical state. The traditional French narrative about America’s unreliability has been confirmed. Ministers Le Drian and Parly have suggested that Thursday’s event "only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy." Paris is learning important lessons as it prepares for its presidency of the European Union (EU). 

A blow to Franco-Australian cooperation

The "contract of the century" for twelve Shortfin Barracuda submarines - an adaptation of the existing French Barracuda to Australian specifications - was worth €35 billion. €8-9 billion of that was allocated to Naval Group, which is 60% owned by the French State. The contract was signed in 2016, and work on fulfillment was already well underway, with several hundred people involved-including many Australians in Cherbourg. Progress had been difficult, but no one in France imagined that Washington could offer Canberra a real alternative. This, because the great industrialist Lockheed Martin was involved in combat systems, and because the US has no history of selling nuclear-powered submarines. 

But the American offer goes beyond that. It not only provides Australia with those vessels, but also arms them with Tomahawk missiles within the wider framework of a major trilateral cooperation on defense and security technologies. This is understandably attractive to the Australians and Americans, as the situation in the region is far tougher than that of the early 2010s. This explains, for example, why even the Australian Labor Party has moved towards accepting nuclear-propelled submarines, as they provide a real military advantage in terms of the duration and secrecy of patrols. 

For France, their contract was part of a broader logic of building a long-term strategic relationship - a fifty-year marriage.

For France, their contract was part of a broader logic of building a long-term strategic relationship - a fifty-year marriage, as described in Paris. The groundwork had been laid by several years of informal dialogue between government officials and experts. But this marriage was annulled before it could materialize, leading to the French describing Canberra’s decision as "contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia." This relationship was to be one of two pillars of its Indo-Pacific strategy, the other with India via the Rafale deal. The only advantage for Paris is that there is less chance that its regional strategy will - wrongly - be perceived as being aligned with the US.

A wound to the non-proliferation regime

Nuclear propulsion certainly has its advantages, but the technology is sensitive. This is why, until now, no nuclear state has sold it to a non-nuclear one (only six countries possess nuclear propulsion technology: the five official nuclear powers and India). France has never done so despite requests from Brazil for instance, and even though it would be relatively simple to sell a type of submarine it already uses itself. Additionally, at the time the contract was signed, Australia did not ask for nuclear technology. Now, the United States has broken the taboo. What would they have said had it been France? 

Does this mean that Australia will have access to this sovereign technology, which it could then replicate? Certainly not - the technical know-how will be a "black box" to which Australia will not have access. 

We must now move on. We need to settle the trade dispute quickly and, above all, separate it from the inevitable overhaul of our Indo-Pacific strategy, as our country will certainly remain a power in the region.

This also means that there is no risk of nuclear proliferation. Of course, the reactors will almost certainly use highly enriched uranium (HEU), the technology currently used by the Americans and the British. Conversely, the French have chosen the more reasonable path of low-enriched uranium (LEU), which cannot be directly used to make a bomb. What this could lead to is a revival of the debate in Australia over the desirability of a civilian - or even a joint civilian and military - nuclear program, as the 2016 French offer did not technically prevent the development of a national nuclear propulsion solution in the longer term. 

The political changes we are seeing are not good news for the next five-year conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, due to be held in January 2022. This is because HEU escapes international controls when it is used for propulsion alone. This use is unavoidable, as it is difficult to imagine foreign inspectors controlling the engines of a nation’s submarine fleet. Thus, HEU can be removed from controlled facilities purportedly to be used for nuclear propulsion, which is the kind of step Iran could take, for example. Moreover, other states could now sell similar propulsion reactors to non-nuclear countries, citing the new American precedent. 

Moving forward

As for France, we must now move on. We need to settle the trade dispute quickly and, above all, separate it from the inevitable overhaul of our Indo-Pacific strategy, as our country will certainly remain a power in the region. Australia, on the other hand, will still need its "Pacific neighbor," as no one wants Beijing to be able to exploit tensions between Western nations. Hence the interest, for example, in continuing conversations not only through official channels, but also through ‘Track 2’ experts and ‘Track 1.5’ managers and experts. 

Questions will arise during the eighteen months of discussions planned between the three countries involved. For certain projects and operations, will we see France occasionally joining the AUKUS format? Or will France rather be forced to turn to Germany and Japan for its Indo-Pacific strategy? Ironically, those two countries were also competitors for the Australian submarine contract. 

For France, this will also be an unavoidable introspection exercise. Perhaps we have shown too much confidence, or even blindness, in our approach to an issue with such major industrial and strategic ramifications.

Finally, we must beware of hasty political conclusions and not forget that the Biden administration is not the Trump administration. The latter did not care about its allies. The current one takes care of its allies - but maybe not all of them.

 

Copyright: Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP

 

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