Row of submarines threatens US-EU relations, Biden’s China policy

The row that has erupted over Australia’s decision to cancel an agreement to buy French submarines and switch to American-made ships – a move that Paris calls a “stab in the back” – is more than French self-esteem.

This risks opening even deeper cracks in the transatlantic alliance, which has been the foundation of U.S. foreign policy for more than seven decades.

Why we wrote this

Europeans, despised by Washington’s recent cavalier treatment, are considering a more independent foreign policy path. It could mean less international support for President Biden’s hard line on China.

The way Australia, the United States and Britain had negotiated in secret for months to create a new security alliance dubbed AUKUS; the way in which neither the European Union nor NATO allies were notified of the announcement; it all smacked of how they had been left out during last month’s US withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan.

This made some in Europe question whether they could still count on Washington, and it reinforced arguments that Europeans should adopt a more independent foreign policy on issues such as China, rather than leave America behind. take the lead.

As President Joe Biden seeks to rally allies in a democratic front against autocratic leaders like China’s Xi Jinping, Europe’s overall goal, the EU’s foreign policy chief said last week. , Josep Borrell, is “cooperation, not confrontation”.


First came the verbal blows, the accusations of “lying, duplicity… treason!” Then the dramatic recall of an ambassador from Washington.

Yet it was not the pace, or even the passion, of last week’s march against the United States that was most extraordinary. It was the source.

It does not come from a rival like Russia or China, but from the United States’ oldest international ally, France. Ties with Europe are already strained; this new diplomatic storm threatens to open even deeper cracks in the transatlantic alliance – the bedrock of US foreign policy for more than seven decades.

Why we wrote this

Europeans, despised by Washington’s recent cavalier treatment, are considering a more independent foreign policy path. It could mean less international support for President Biden’s hard line on China.

France is not the only European Union member of NATO to wonder if the old continent can rely on Washington with the same certainty as before. And skeptics now wonder if they should take a more independent approach to their own security and key foreign policy issues like China, rather than let America take the lead.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks at a press conference in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. He warned of the “highly conflictual direction” he feared Washington would take against China as it founds a new security pact in the Indo-Pacific region.

The spark of the latest tension was the announcement of a new alliance – dubbed AUKUS – under which the United States and Britain will supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia and jointly develop d other high-tech military and intelligence tools to be deployed in the Indo-Pacific region. .

This meant the summary cancellation of an agreement between the Australians and the French, for conventional submarines with diesel engines. Concretely, France has lost nearly 66 billion dollars of business and many jobs which depend on it.

But it wasn’t just these issues that sparked France’s fury – and the first withdrawal of its chief envoy from Washington since the French sided with the American colonies in the War of Independence.

It was rather the manner in which the rebuff was uttered – a “stab in the back”, called Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. AUKUS emerged from months of top-secret negotiations that kept Paris in the dark. France first heard of the deal from Australia, hours before the White House’s official announcement last Wednesday, and after the news leaked to the media.

The EU was not notified either. NATO neither, it seems. And it struck a particularly sensitive nerve: EU states and European NATO members remain angered at being left out of the United States’ swift withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan, last month.

The overall effect was to stifle the initial opinion in European capitals that President Joe Biden would quickly mend the transatlantic ties that President Donald Trump had so denigrated. “This brutal, one-sided and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump was doing,” Le Drian said.

The hope in the United States is that France’s anger will gradually subside. Mr Biden contacted this week to schedule a phone call with President Emmanuel Macron to at least try to clean the air.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison appears on stage with video links to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden to announce the creation of a new security alliance, widely seen as aimed at curbing Chinese military ambitions at sea .

But the substance behind AUKUS is likely to prove more difficult to refine: a new Anglo-Saxon security alliance whose EU member has chosen to leave the EU, clearly targeting China. And China is now the top priority of Washington’s foreign policy, no matter what Europeans think.

For Mr. Macron, the logical European answer is clear. He has long pressured his EU colleagues to forge greater “strategic autonomy” vis-à-vis the Americans. During the Trump years, he went so far as to declare NATO “brain dead” – a remark he retracted during Europe’s first diplomatic honeymoon with the Biden administration.

His argument has gradually gained support among some other EU states. It will have been reinforced by the way in which the United States kept the Europeans out of Afghanistan, and by AUKUS.

But there is a major caveat: “strategic autonomy” costs money. This means a commitment to much higher defense spending than most European countries have so far been prepared to accept. And it should be noted that no other European leader has rushed to echo Paris’ furious denunciations against Washington over AUKUS.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready to follow what Le Drian calls the “high-conflict orientation” towards Beijing that Washington has taken, especially as the EU was working on its own strategic plan to the Indo-Pacific region, which he unveiled last week.

“We regret that we were not informed” of UKUS, said EU Foreign and Security Commissioner Josep Borrell. “We have to survive on our own, like others do,” he added.

France itself is already a key player in the Indo-Pacific, home to some 1.6 million of its citizens in overseas territories defended by 8,000 soldiers and a naval force, including submarines. nuclear.

The EU document laid out plans for possible naval deployments by member states to “help protect maritime lines of communication and freedom of navigation,” a veiled reference to thwarting Chinese maritime ambitions.

But the tone and focus of the plan was markedly different from Washington’s increasingly harsh stance on China – in part, perhaps, because EU states might be more reluctant to risk their precious ties. trade and investment with Beijing.

As President Biden seeks to rally allies in a democratic front against autocratic leaders like Xi Jinping, Europe’s overall goal, Borrell said, was “cooperation, not confrontation.”

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