JUST OCCASIONALLY, you can see the tectonic plates of geopolitics shifting in front of your eyes. Suez in 1956, Nixon going to China in 1972 and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 are among the examples in living memory. The unveiling last week of a trilateral defence pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (introducing the awkward acronym of AUKUS) is providing another of those rare occasions.
AUKUS envisages a wide range of diplomatic and technological collaboration, from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence, but at its core is an agreement to start consultations to help Australia acquire a fleet of nuclear-propelled (though not nuclear-armed) submarines. One consequence of this is Australia cancelling a contract, worth tens of billions of dollars, signed in 2016 with France for diesel-electric submarines. In announcing AUKUS on September 15th with the prime ministers of Australia and Britain, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson, President Joe Biden stressed that it was about “investing in our greatest source of strength—our alliances”. However, America’s oldest ally, France, has reacted with understandable fury. Jean-Yves Le Drian, its foreign minister, called it a “stab in the back”. On September 17th President Emmanuel Macron withdrew France’s ambassadors from Washington and Canberra (though not London).
The powerful reverberations of AUKUS show what a profound shift it represents. For America it is the most dramatic move yet in its determination to counter what it sees as the growing threat from China, particularly the maritime challenge it poses in the Pacific. Not only is America sharing the crown jewels of military technology, the propulsion plant for nuclear submarines, with an ally for only the second time in 63 years (the other time being with Britain). It is also robustly signalling its long-term commitment to what it calls a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Many countries in the region which share the sense of threat from China welcome that. AUKUS will now provide a potent backdrop for the first in-person meeting of leaders of the Quad—America, Australia, India and Japan—in Washington, DC, on September 24th. Last month, amid a chaotic withdrawal from Kabul, there was talk of America’s lack of staying power and a loss of faith among its allies. For all the anger in Paris, AUKUS changes that narrative. “The larger significance of this is that the United States is doubling down on its allies, and its allies are doubling down on the United States,” says Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Sydney. “Unfortunately, France is collateral damage.”
In Australian eyes the developments that led to AUKUS were largely made in China. It was the heavy-handed pressure that China has applied on Australia, the most striking recent example being the response to its call for an independent investigation into the origins of covid-19, that led to urgent interest in ways to push back. Ditching the submarine contract with France was a bold move. Although the deal with Naval Group, a company in which the French state has a majority stake, had run into difficulties over its escalating costs and delays, and had few friends among politicians or the press, it was nevertheless one of the largest contracts in the history of Australia and was widely thought to be too big to dump. That the government has done so, despite the prospect of hefty penalties, reflects both the scale of its bet on America as an ally and the attractions of the submarine technology it will obtain: far stealthier and with far longer range than the diesel-electric ones.
Britain may be the least important of the AUKUS trio; certainly, its role is belittled in the French decision not to recall its ambassador to London (Mr Le Drian called Britain the “third wheel” in the deal). Even so, for Mr Johnson the pact illustrates his country’s changing role in the world. It conveniently chimes with the post-Brexit effort to promote “Global Britain” (henceforth to be energetically championed by a new foreign secretary, Liz Truss). And it gives substance to the “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” that was embraced in a comprehensive review of foreign and defence policy published in March.
For the French, too, AUKUS crystallises what they view as profound realities in international relations, notably the idea that Europe needs more “strategic autonomy” so as not to depend excessively on America. However the muted reaction among France’s European partners casts familiar doubt on how serious such autonomy can be. After news of the AUKUS deal emerged, a German official called for “coherence and unity” among Western powers, which he said would require “a lot of effort” to bring about. France has concluded that it will struggle for fair treatment in the face of the reflexes of Anglophone allies to club together (the trilateral deal comes on top of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance that involves the same three countries plus Canada and New Zealand). But French fury, especially against Australia, is also driven by a personal sense of betrayal.
That goes beyond the loss of a giant contract, painful as that is. France sets great store by its role in the Indo-Pacific region, where it keeps some 7,000 troops and has nearly 2m citizens, including in its island territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia. It has been assiduously building what it thought was an ever-closer relationship with Australia. As recently as August 30th the communiqué from high-level Australian-French ministerial consultations spoke of “the strength of our strategic partnership” across many areas, and stressed “the importance of the Future Submarine programme”. Yet neither at that summit nor at the many others over the months when AUKUS was in the works was France given any notice of it. The “six months of secrecy” was “quite a performance,” says François Heisbourg, a French foreign-policy expert who through his think-tank had for years been involved in cultivating connections with Australia.
The fallout in France is one of several caveats to what otherwise appears to be a strategic coup for the three partners in AUKUS. The administration’s idea of working together with allies to check China makes sense. But a major split with a key ally—one with serious Indo-Pacific interests—hardly helps. Creative efforts will now be needed from the AUKUS squad to try to mitigate the damage.
Second, there is what this says about American diplomacy. The French were bound to be upset, but the handling of them was graceless. That comes on top of the Biden administration’s poor handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. One example of foreign-policy incompetence looks unfortunate; two in quick succession look like a pattern. That is not a good omen for the management of the relationship with China, which involves elements of military competition, economic laissez-faire and collaboration over, say, climate change and arms control.
Third, American foreign policy has often been criticised, including by Mr Biden, for placing too much emphasis on the military dimension and not enough on diplomacy and other tools. The nuclear-submarine initiative is a big move on the defence front, but China is increasingly powerful in the region on the economic and financial fronts. China responded to AUKUS by criticising its “cold-war mentality”. The next day it applied to join the CPTPP, an 11-country transpacific trade pact that America helped to instigate as a way to limit China’s influence, but then abandoned.
There is no quick fix for America’s mistakes in economic policy. Indeed, the rivalry between China and America, together with its allies, will play out across many areas over many years. It is the defining geopolitical challenge of the 21st century. And now in AUKUS it has acquired a new landmark.