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“This is not over.” French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian

“We intend to build these submarines in Adelaide in close cooperation with the UK and the US. But let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison

“The American choice which leads to the removal of an ally and a European partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region … marks an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret.” Jean-Yves Le Drian

“I want to be exceedingly clear about this, we are not talking about nuclear-armed submarines. These are conventionally armed submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors. This technology is proven. It’s safe.” Joe Biden

“One can imagine a future where Britain is the junior partner of the U.S., France the junior partner of Germany, and Russia the junior partner of China,” Michel Duclos, a former French diplomat

This week I want to shift away from regional terrorist matters to a Global Security issue that is causing much heartburn among many countries around the world. There is a new sheriff in town in the Indo-Pacific region and depending on which side of the fence you live on it could be a source of great comfort or consternation. 

This week we will look at the creation of a relatively new strategic alliance between Australia, the UK, and the United States. We will take a look at how it was seemingly birthed swiftly, what all it entails, the response from key players, and how it will affect the strategic balance of the Indo-Pacific region now and in the future. We will also look at how it is affecting current long-standing alliances.

There are a multitude of nuances to the politics and economics of this gossamer web of global relationships, and what will become abundantly clear is that there is so much more than meets the eye in the unfolding of this alliance.

Review.

AUKUS, is a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, announced on 15 September 2021 for the Indo-Pacific region. Under the pact, the US and the UK will help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

The pact also includes cooperation on “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities”. The pact will focus on military capability, separating it from the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance that also includes New Zealand and Canada.

Two contradictory aims– Australia, first in the order of entry onto the AUKUS stage, was initially pursuing two contradictory aims. The first, of an industrial nature, was to ensure the success of the French-designed ‘Attack’ submarine program, to replace the existing ‘Collins’ class submarine. 

While the submarine initiative has dominated the headlines, secondly, the AUKUS partnership carries much wider significance in that it will see Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States expand their cooperation across a wide range of defense capability, extremely critical technology, and industrial areas. 

AUKUS isn’t a new alliance structure, a competitor to the W Quad between Australia, India, Japan, and the US, or a signal of decreased commitment to ASEAN forums by the AUKUS members. It is as much an economic chess move by very powerful players as it is about maritime strategy.

What will this do to the alliances between the French, Australians, the UK, and the US?

According to Tom McTague, a writer for The Atlantic, the riff between London and Paris is little more than an uncomfortable revelation of just how similar London and Paris are in their disdain for one another. McTague says, “For Paris, the submarine episode is proof of London’s “permanent opportunism” and preference for junior status in a partnership with the United States over any meaningful association with Europe. It is as if nothing has changed since Winston Churchill exploded in frustration at Charles de Gaulle on the eve of D-Day to say that if Britain were ever forced to choose between Europe and the open seas, it would always choose the latter.” 

In the French view, Boris Johnson’s pursuit of a “Global Britain” outside the European Union is merely the latest expression of this deep and undignified national instinct. And for Britain, in turn, Paris’s reaction to AUKUS just exposes France’s latent anti-American chauvinism, its fixation on long-lost grandeur, and its cynical strategy to use the EU as a vehicle for its doomed goal of returning to global relevance. This British view was summarized by Johnson in Washington this week when he said, in a way seemingly designed to further wind up Emmanuel Macron’s government, “Donnez-moi un break.” (Give me a break)

The strategic objectives of the AUKUS– Australia had concluded that the rapid rise of the Chinese threat called for nuclear-powered submarines, and, apparently, the earlier the better. Canberra had also come to the view that the defense relationship with the US was a more significant one and it needed to be strengthened.

AUKUS is intended to complement the efforts , not compete with the other partnerships and regional groupings, such as Five Eyes and the Quad, to develop coordination in areas including diplomacy, global governance, health security, and intelligence sharing.

China’s Response

China is hostile to the arrangement. Using familiar language, China’s embassy in Washington said that Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom should “shake off their Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice.” China is likely to argue that AUKUS contributes to instability in the region and demonstrates how Washington will drag its alliance partners in the region into tensions or worse.

Regional Response

Reflecting on the importance of these relationships, Prime Minister Scott Morrison briefed his New Zealand, Japanese, and Indian counterparts on the arrangement before it was announced. New Zealand has said that this development would not alter its security cooperation with any of the three countries but reiterated its long-standing prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in its waters. Pacific Islands Countries may share New Zealand’s mixed view, given strongly held views about the importance of a “nuclear-free Blue Pacific”.

Other important US allies and partners in the region, including India, South Korea, and Japan, are expected to be mostly positive about the development, at least in private, seeing it as a way of embedding the United States and the United Kingdom in the region amid increasing concerns about China. In different ways, each of these countries is seeking to deepen its own defense capabilities and ties with the United States.

Countries in Southeast Asia are likely to be more ambivalent. They share Australia’s interests in preventing China from dominating the region and have become more positive about the ANZUS alliance in recent years. Indonesia and the Philippines welcomed Australia’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update, which foreshadowed Canberra taking a more assertive regional military posture. However, some countries will see this major development as increasing regional tensions, rather than promoting peace and stability. Australia will be hoping that briefings and dialogue with key regional countries will help prevent any negative reactions.

The fallout from the AUKUS alliance

The level of animosity in Paris about the Australian submarine decision has not diminished and has become more widespread within the French general public. This is simply because the original Australian decision to purchase 12 French conventional submarines was very big news throughout the country. The decision not to proceed with the contract has become even bigger news.

Aside from the friction with France, the new agreement has been met with nearly universal adulation from the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Some say that this alliance could force the Chinese to enlist the Russians into a partnership to counterbalance the AUKUS alliance in the Indo-pacific region. There could be additional ramifications within NATO as the US and the UK are founding members.

As an aside, what are the differences between a diesel class submarine and a nuclear-powered submarine? Simply, a diesel submarine is generally smaller and can navigate littoral waters with much greater ease quietly and quickly. A nuclear-powered submarine is generally much larger and can stay hidden and submerged in the deep ocean for as long as it needs to, barring running out of provisions for its crew. They stay submerged sometimes for as long as 90 days, which is what they contingency plan for in the US Navy. Diesel-powered submarines need to come up for air every few days. This is dangerous in wartime as there are always surface ships and aircraft looking for submarines. Nuclear-powered submarines are one of the most dangerous weapons on the seas today.

In the end, when billions of dollars are at stake, people tend to get very territorial and fiercely protective. There are untold historical and cultural dynamics at play between the UK/US and France. The French continue to suffer under a deep-seated feeling of a lack of respect for what it brings to the global table. For years the French have played second fiddle to the prowess of the German industrial machine. They have been forced to go it on their own numerous times throughout history being at different times the deliverer and, at other times, the one in need of delivery. 

They will work out a diplomatic solution. It may not be one that they are happy with, but the economies of France and Britain are inextricably entwined. The French need the Australians for logistical support for their own geopolitical ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. The French and the US share too many common personal interests and common enemies to stay angry with each other for too long. It will cost jobs and tourism. It is a formula too important to ignore.  

The French Ambassadors have returned to their posts in both Canberra and Washington, D.C., and have already begun unwinding the damage that was caused by the cancellation of the $66 billion diesel-powered submarine deal between France and Australia in favor of a nuclear-powered submarine option with the UK and the US. My assessment is that this estrangement may appear to be about strategic partnerships in the Pacific, but in the end, it will really be about money; and money problems are usually assuaged by money solutions. It is my analysis that this one will be solved by money, and lots of it, as well.

Why.

 The official line from all four parties concerning the creation of the AUKUS alliance is that it is about reducing the likelihood of conflict in the region by strengthening credible deterrents. This is essential and urgent because President Xi of China has already shown a willingness to make big moves fast against others’ interests when he thinks he can get away with it, as we have seen with China’s militarization of the South China Sea, with Beijing’s breach of the Sino-UK Treaty on Hong Kong, in aggressive moves by China on the India-China border, in the East China Sea with Japan, and in and around Taiwan. The Chinese government is continuing to push its defense and technology sectors to equip the Chinese military to fight and win wars, and Xi continues to direct the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) to, “be ready to strike at a moment’s notice,” with training and exercising showing the PLA is acting on this instruction.

This is a much bigger issue than the multibillion-dollar price tag for nuclear submarines and who gets to build them. Unfortunately, this primal matter is not going away, and, in the end, the decision to go with the AUKUS partnership rather than a partnership with France will prove to be much more effective in dissuading the Chinese from continuing to bully smaller nation-states in the Indo-Pacific.

Action.

There needs to be a level of real cooperation between the Five Eyes intelligence grouping and France. There is every reason for Australia to seek to reconstruct a strategic direction in which France’s and Australia’s interests are again in alignment.

Reconciliation is no small matter for nation-states unless it is in the nation’s self-interest. In this particular case, the rapprochement is the much nobler course of action, especially with so much on the line with a crouching tiger waiting to pounce on unsuspecting nations as they are forgotten in the midst of its greater neighbors squabblings.

The follow-up.

Japan not closing door on hosting American INF missiles… https://www.politico.com/newsletters/national-security-daily/2022/01/31/japan-not-closing-door-on-hosting-american-inf-missiles-00003840

Putin and Xi meet amid Ukraine Tensions… https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/weekly-rundown-putin-and-xi-meet-amid-ukraine-tensions-opec-holds-steady

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:  david@morethanmeets.co

Resources.

https://www.politico.eu/article/france-slams-australia-us-e50b-submarine-deal/

https://ukandeu.ac.uk/aukus-lessons-of-policy-objectives-and-secrecy/

https://www.ussc.edu.au/analysis/explainer-what-is-the-aukus-partnership

Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison; Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson; President of the United States of America Joseph R. Biden (16 September 2021). “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS”. Prime Minister of Australia (Press release). Archived from the original on 27 September 2021. 

Ward, Alexander; McLeary, Paul. “Biden announces joint deal with U.K. and Australia to counter China”. Politico. Archived from the original on 27 September 2021. 

Prime Minister; Minister for Defence; Minister for Foreign Affairs; Minister for Women (16 September 2021). “Australia to pursue Nuclear-powered Submarines through new Trilateral Enhanced Security Partnership”. Prime Minister of Australia (Press release).

“AUKUS: China denounces US-UK-Australia pact as irresponsible”. BBC News. 16 September 2021.

https://www.ussc.edu.au/analysis/explainer-what-is-the-aukus-partnership

https://www.aspi.org.au/report/what-aukus-and-what-it-not

“AUKUS causing Xi ‘heartburn’, says White House”. Australian Financial Review. 21 November 2021. 

Shields, Bevan (18 September 2021). “France recalls its ambassadors to Australia and United States amid submarine fury”. The Sydney Morning Herald.

Prime Minister of Australia; President of France (2 May 2018). “Vision Statement on the Australia-France Relationship by the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister Of The Commonwealth Of Australia and His Excellency Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic”. Prime Minister of Australia (Press release). 

https://www.aspi.org.au/opinion/aukus-aftermath-its-our-interests-make-things-right-french

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