Nuclear submarines and diplomatic explosion: the American-French clash, explained
France recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia on Friday to protest Australia’s decision to cancel a major defense deal in favor of a new one with the United States and Britain.
The dramatic decision crowns a week of outrage for France, which on Thursday called the new US-British-Australian agreement a “stab in the back,” and represents a major diplomatic break between long-standing allies.
It is also the first time that France has recalled its ambassador to the United States, according to Bloomberg News, and it comes after French authorities canceled a gala in Washington, DC scheduled for Friday.
New US-UK-Australia deal, announced by the leaders of the three countries on Wednesday, lays the groundwork for Australia’s acquisition of at least eight nuclear submarines with backing from the US and UK . According to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, it is also the “first major initiative” of a new tripartite security agreement between countries under the acronym AUKUS (pronounced AWK-us, according to the PA).
“This initiative aims to ensure that each of us has a modern capability – the most modern capabilities we need – to maneuver and defend against rapidly evolving threats,” President Joe Biden said in the statement. ‘joint announcement on Wednesday with Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The AUKUS submarine agreement replaces a previous agreement between France and Australia for France to deliver 12 non-nuclear submarines.
In a press release on Friday announcing France’s decision to recall its ambassadors, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said this decision “is justified by the exceptional gravity of the announcements made on September 15 by Australia and United States”.
I am called back to Paris for consultations. This follows announcements directly affecting our vision of our alliances, partnerships and the importance of the Indo-Pacific to Europe. https://t.co/ue2V1NUTpN
– Philippe Etienne (@Ph_Etienne) September 17, 2021
In public remarks this week, French officials, including Le Drian, could not restrain their shock at Australia’s decision to look to the United States and the United Kingdom. “We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, and that trust was betrayed,” Le Drian said Thursday, according to Politico.
French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly reserved particular contempt for the United States, saying that France is “lucid about the way the United States treats its allies”, according to Deutsche Welle.
Despite the UK’s smaller role in the negotiations – currently the US shares its submarine technology with the UK alone, which requires Britain’s cooperation in the pact – Le Drian also had harsh words for the Johnson government, saying it is “in the logic of opportunism.”
Concerning the United Kingdom, “the recall of our ambassador to London was not necessary because we already know that the British government is in a logic of permanent opportunism”.
– Pierre Morcos (@morcos_pierre) September 18, 2021
Nuclear submarines make geopolitical sense for Australia
French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to withdraw his country’s ambassadors to the United States and Australia in response to the pact marks a surprising break in France’s historically close relationship with the United States – but Australia’s decision to look to the United States for its submarine fleet is less surprising.
Specifically, China’s military build-up and its quest for dominance in the South China Sea – a major trade route for Australia – made French submarines obsolete before they were even delivered. Because U.S.-made submarines rely on nuclear power, they have a much greater range than conventional submarines, do not require refueling, and have better stealth capabilities, which means that they can stay underwater for months undetected, Australian National University researcher AJ Mitchell explained in Conversation this week.
With the AUKUS Pact, Australia will join six other countries – the US, UK, Russia, India, France and China – in deploying nuclear submarines, assuming the agreement is proceeding as planned. Prior to this new alliance, the United States had only shared its submarine technology with Britain.
In addition to the benefits of nuclear submarines, Australia’s previous deal with France – a $ 66 billion submarine contract, finalized in 2016, that would have provided Australia with 12 Barracuda submarines conventional diesel engines – has been fraught with pitfalls.
The deal with France was only canceled on Wednesday, just hours before Morrison announced the AUKUS deal on a conference call with Biden and Johnson, but it had already started to unravel – falling behind so that costs had nearly doubled – when Australia approached the United States to acquire its submarine technology shortly after Biden took office earlier this year.
In June, Australian Defense Minister Scott Moriarty signaled at a Senate hearing that the original deal was untenable, Politico reports, and that Australia was looking for other options if the pact failed. collapsed.
In addition to cost overruns and delays, there were other issues as well. Shortly after Australia and France struck the deal in 2016, the French shipbuilder, then known as DCNS, revealed that it had been hacked and that documents related to a separate Indian submarine project had been exposed. And while France’s submarine technology – conventional diesel-powered attack ships that could be converted to nuclear power – might have made sense when Australia’s relationship with China was less controversial, this The relationship has deteriorated recently due to China’s aggressive foreign policy in the Pacific and elsewhere. .
AUKUS surprised France
While problems with the Australia-France deal have long been apparent, neither the United States nor the Australians discussed the change with their French counterparts until just hours before Morrison, Johnson and Biden announced. the new alliance, according to the New York Times.
In fact, Australia and the United States are said to have conspired to keep France’s deal developing, even as officials from both countries met with their French counterparts. Biden discussed the future of their alliance with Macron in June and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made no mention of the pact when he met Le Drian that same month in Paris.
Australia also hid its plans from France when Morrison and Macron met in June, although Morrison said he raised concerns about the viability of diesel-powered ships, according to the Hill. Australia’s defense and foreign ministers even met their French counterparts late last month and issued a joint statement on their continued defense cooperation, specifically citing the submarine program.
But by that date, according to the New York Times, the AUKUS agreement was practically signed. The news caught French officials off guard, French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault would have learned of the new alliance when the news broke in the Australian press, and while Jake Sullivan, the adviser to the National Security Officer, discussed the decision with the French ambassador. Philippe Etienne just before the official announcement, this did not prevent France from recalling Etienne to Paris for consultations.
The intricate roots of France’s fury
In addition to diplomatic issues, France’s disappointment over the dissolution of its initial submarine agreement has a financial component.
Indeed, the scuttled $ 66 billion deal has been touted as the “deal of the century” in France, and Parly noted Thursday that the French government would not rule out seeking compensation from Australia.
The now defunct agreement also overlaps with France’s long-term foreign policy objectives.
Macron has long sought to establish what he calls “strategic autonomy” of the European Union, asking members of the bloc to increase their military spending and establish a stronger political relationship with NATO. In February, Macron underlined during an Atlantic Council forum that “the EU is a credible actor and at a relevant level.
The dissolution of the Franco-Australian defense agreement prevents Macron from playing the political and security muscles of the country – and of the bloc – in the Indo-Pacific.
That doesn’t mean that France’s outrage this week bodes well for a major change for the country in the future, however.
As Daniel Baer, senior researcher at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, points out in Foreign Policy, “For the French – or anyone else – to turn a substantial trade loss into an anti-paradigm strategic shift is wrong. interpretation of the meaning of the pact, whose main strategic axis is, after all, the Indo-Pacific.