French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced the AUKUS plan as a “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision,” and he accused Australia of a “knife in the back” in canceling the $66 billion contract. Behind this indignation were some deeper themes: France’s historic rivalry with the “Anglo-Saxons,” a desire for greater weight as a global power, post-Brexit antipathy toward Johnson and chagrin over losing a lucrative commercial deal.
But the strategic impact of the deal — and its promise to accelerate an American-led response to China’s rapidly expanding military power — should outweigh the short-term anger from Paris and other European capitals. France sometimes speaks of finding a “middle way” between China and the United States. But for all the grousing Thursday, French officials share U.S. wariness of Beijing.
The AUKUS plan has been taking shape in secret since Biden took office, but it caught the world by surprise — not just France but also China, the unnamed but obvious target of the military pact. The announcement now reflected Biden’s desire to show that the United States is a strong military ally, despite the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The immediate goal is to help Australia build a nuclear attack submarine that will provide a quiet, undersea weapons platform at a time when surface vessels are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese anti-ship missiles. An administration official said Australia may build up to a dozen such subs over the next two decades.
France should have understood that its submarine deal was in trouble in June, when Morrison visited Paris and complained about the French subs’ high cost and inadequate performance. Australia’s move to buy American nuclear subs partly reflected that performance gap. The U.S. Navy zealously guards its nuclear technology — shared only with Britain under a 1958 agreement — and was initially reluctant to exchange these secrets with another country.
The deeper impact, transcending the submarine flap, is that the AUKUS countries will cooperate on a broad array of new military technologies, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, hypersonic missiles, cyberweapons and new undersea systems. The Biden team hopes this tripartite technology alliance will shake up the sometimes insular and slow-moving U.S. defense sector.
An unstated goal of the pact is to disrupt what sometimes seems an American addiction to legacy weapons systems, such as aircraft carriers and fighter jets, that will have diminishing effectiveness against China’s high-tech military. Last week, Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, complained in a session at the Brookings Institution that the Pentagon has been “unbelievably slow” with military modernization.
The AUKUS plan for joint weapons development was welcomed by Christian Brose, former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leading advocate of military modernization. “We need to think of this initiative as a common defense-industrial-technology base,” he said in an interview. Brose is now chief strategy officer at Anduril Industries, a defense start-up.
Even as the AUKUS alliance binds three English-speaking countries, the administration is also deepening ties with “the Quad” partnership, which includes India and Japan as well as Australia and the United States. Leaders of the four countries will hold a summit meeting next week hosted by Biden.
Biden’s approach to China has had two faces, much like China’s own stance toward the West. On the conciliatory side, Biden called President Xi Jinping last Thursday to stress U.S. desire for cooperation on issues such as climate change and halting nuclear proliferation. But the week after Biden’s outreach, he announced the new military pact aimed at deterring China’s growing power.
The AUKUS announcement drew a blistering initial reaction from Beijing, which fears such alliances, and will work even harder now to detach France and Europe from the United States. But both French and U.S. officials insist, even in the disarray following the AUKUS rollout, that both sides want deeper strategic cooperation over the long run.
Australia is a pivotal nation in the Sino-American competition for influence in Asia. Australia’s heart has been with the United States, but its wallet depended on China. Beijing sought to exploit this economic vulnerability and pressure Australia into distancing itself from the West. With the AUKUS pact, Washington pushed back hard, and showed it has Australia’s back.