The subtext was clear. Biden’s administration, acting in part on the analyses of its predecessors, hopes to fortify U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of China’s expanding naval might. “We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve, because the future of each of our nations, and indeed the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific, enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” Biden said.
The new pact is a major move. The United States has only shared this technology with Britain, as part of a decades-old Cold War agreement. By accepting this American assistance, Australia is counting on a sustained, long-term U.S. commitment and somewhat yoking its China strategy to that of Washington. Britain, eager to burnish its post-Brexit global credentials, is happy to play the role of the junior partner. “This is a powerful answer to those who thought the US was pulling back and the propaganda claiming Washington wasn’t a reliable ally,” tweeted Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Britain’s House of Commons, adding that it “makes the pivot to Asia, for both Britain and the US, a reality.”
In Beijing, the angry reaction was swift and predictable. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the agreement as “extremely irresponsible” and a reflection, yet again, of an “outdated Cold War mentality.” Zhao said the new alliance “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, aggravated the arms race and hurt international nonproliferation efforts.”
But Chinese officials weren’t the only ones who were miffed. The “AUKUS” agreement has almost equally incensed France, which saw Australia essentially walk away from a deal it awarded to French bidders in 2016 to build a new fleet of diesel-powered submarines. Some Australian politicians and analysts claim the project had its logistical and technical issues and costs were spiraling. A protracted international dispute may follow, with France keen to recoup tens of billions of dollars lost by Australia breaking its contract.
Beyond the collapse of a lucrative deal, French officials were outraged by the manner in which it all played out, saying they were blindsided by the Australian decision and unaware of the months of negotiations between the three “Anglo” powers. “It’s a stab in the back,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French radio on Thursday. “We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed.”
The French disquiet extended to the Biden administration, which shepherded through the new arrangement. In a joint statement with French Defense Minister Florence Parly, Le Drian argued that the United States was demonstrating “a lack of consistency, which France can only notice and regret.” He pulled fewer punches speaking to French media, arguing that the “unilateral and brutal” move was something “[former president Donald] Trump would do.”
French commentators cast the development as a serious blow to transatlantic ties, one that should compel policymakers in Paris to intensify their push toward “strategic autonomy.” Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States, suggested that mid-20th-century French statesman Charles de Gaulle would have responded to this moment by opening a dialogue with Beijing.
Philippe Etienne, the current French ambassador in Washington, was more circumspect: He observed on Twitter how events this week coincided with the 240th anniversary of a French naval victory over the British in the Chesapeake Bay, which paved the way for the decisive American defeat of the British at Yorktown that clinched U.S. independence. A planned Friday evening reception organized by the French Embassy to commemorate that battle was canceled.
The Biden administration is counting on bruised Gallic egos to heal sooner rather than later. In Western European capitals, the pact provides yet another reminder of how Washington’s interests diverge from their own and that the European Union may have to play second fiddle as the United States shifts its strategic focus further toward Asia. For Brussels, the timing of the AUKUS announcement was doubly unfortunate, as it coincided with the E.U.’s own planned release of its strategy for what policymakers now dub the “Indo-Pacific.” Biden is set to host an in-person meeting of the “Quad” — an alliance involving Japan, Australia and India — at the White House next Friday.
“It’s a reality check on the geopolitical ambitions of the EU,” a European diplomat told Politico Europe, adding that even though it’s unsettling that “somehow [European powers] don’t manage to be seen as a credible security partner” for the United States and Australia, “we shouldn’t make too much of the Indo-Pacific strategy: The EU is not a Pacific player.”
The Atlantic’s Tom McTague argued that beyond the French tantrums, we may be seeing a slight reconfiguration of Western geopolitics, as the United States prioritizes confronting the perceived threat of China. “The shocks of Trump and Brexit in 2016 — the year Australia signed its original submarine deal with France — have led, inadvertently and circuitously, to today’s world, where a political consensus now exists in the U.S., Britain, and Australia that Chinese power must be contained,” he wrote. “Taken together, the end of the war in Afghanistan, the pivot against China, and the prioritization of the old Anglo alliances over the EU are all grand strategic moves.”
Tensions with China are bound to mount. Chinese state media warned Australia that it was now an “adversary.” An editorial in the provocative, state-run Global Times said that “possessing nuclear-powered submarines will become a universal temptation. The world needs to prepare for the arrival of a ‘nuclear-powered submarine fever.’”
But the United States and its allies are, on many fronts, reacting to the increasingly expansionist and bellicose tactics of China under President Xi Jinping. “Xi’s hard line, plus a political system which trucks no disagreement at home and abroad, means that in the process Beijing has alienated many of its neighbours in the region,” wrote Richard McGregor of the Lowy Institute, a leading Australian think tank. “It is hardly surprising, then, that democracies like Australia and Japan are looking for options to manage China’s rise. In different ways, so are South Korea and many south-east Asian nations. The U.S. is indispensable in all of their calculations.”