AUKUS – the submarine debacle explained
Last week, a diplomatic spectacle of proportions occurred. While we usually witness diplomatic wars among long-time foes and hostile actors, it is quite rare that we see such a public show of resentment among Western liberal allies.
So, what happened?
On September 15th, Australian Prime-Minister Scott Morisson held a virtual press conference with US president Joe Biden and UK Prime-Minister Boris Johnson, announcing a historic security deal in the Asia-Pacific, in what has been seen as a substantial effort to counter China in the region.
The AUKUS pact, as it is known, is one of the biggest defence partnerships Australia has signed in decades: with technology provided by the US, which only the UK had had up to this point, Australia will be able to build nuclear-powered submarines. This will have the indirect intent of countering China’s presence in the much-disputed South China Sea. Although it has not been publicly stated, this is the obvious aim of this partnership.
This technology will not only cover submarine technology and nuclear power, but also other advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.
While China has responded in a likeminded fashion, as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the defence partnership was “extremely irresponsible”, with Beijing accusing the three countries of “Cold war mentality and ideological prejudice”, another country, this time an ally of the three Western powers, was caught in the middle: France.
France was in the middle of finalising a defence deal with Australia worth tens of billions of dollars, which was signed with the European country in 2016 to build 16 diesel-electric submarines. The country was left livid, as the partnership went up in flames, with no heads-up from the Australians. “The deal sunk a €56 billion contract for French majority state-owned Naval Group to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines for Australia”, notes Euronews.
While the speech last Wednesday announcing the defence partnership was centred around “investing in our greatest source of strength – our alliance”, America’s greatest ally, France, was left on the sidewalk, humiliated at a global scale by is closest partners.
This partnership will have serious geopolitical and strategic reverberations on the global scale, similar to few events in recent memory, like the Suez crisis of 1956, the Nixon visit to China in 1972 or the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.
In addition, what is also important to note is the stance the United States has taken in this deal. Through this strategic and defence partnership, American under Joe Biden is showing its teeth, in an ardent quest to increase its presence and its prowess in the Indo-Pacific region, as a way of countering its main enemy and competitor: China.
In order to strengthen its position in the region, the US has taken unprecedented steps: it has shared its military technology with another state, Australia for the first time in 63 years (first and only other state being Great Britain). The United States’ perseverance is also a sign of the power’s long-term commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
While the chaotic withdrawal of US and allied troops from Afghanistan last month created a discourse of concern, in which many experts and journalist wondered whether this is the end of US interventionism and partnerships abroad, the AUKUS deal is proof that the Unites States is very much still in the game, continuing to showcase its muscles around the world, especially when it comes to its main competition.
However, in this case, a fellow ally was caught in the middle and became collateral damage: France. And while it is understandable that there are vested interests by Western allies in containing the situation in the region, cutting ties with such an important ally, such as France, and especially one with serious interests in the Indo-Pacific region will be hurtful.
“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”, argues The Economist. Thus, this situation will need to be mitigated by the three states, otherwise it will be at their expense and their interests in the region and on the wider global scale.
Since the announcement of the trilateral partnership, France has shown some serious diplomatic retaliation in response to this humiliation of proportions for the French Republic.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Info radio that this has been “really like a stab in the back”, stating that Australia “betrayed” France. In a row of fury over the strategic deal, France has also pulled out of a UK-France defence summit due to be held in London. “Paris is incensed after Australia abandoned a lucrative but troubled contract for new diesel submarines with a French contractor to switch to the nuclear-powered alternative after six months of secret negotiations with the UK and US”, states the Guardian.
As Prime-Minister Scott Morrison arrived in New York for the United Nations, the head of state declared that there is no chance of an encounter with French President Emmanuel Macron. In addition, France is also trying to delay a EU-Australia trade deal, as part of a plan to punish Australia for withdrawing from the partnership in the way that they did.
Sideling European allies and deliberately provoking simmering confrontations with Russia and China may not be the ideal way to address this problem. In addition, the graceless manner in which this was handled raises some red flags as to the future of American diplomacy under President Joe Biden. As we have seen with Afghanistan last month, a lack of management of relations and foreign policy debacles seem to be an area of expertise for the current US President.
The rivalry between China and America has established in recent years to be the main geopolitical rivalry of this era, and with the onset of the AUKUS deals and its simmering diplomatic tensions, this power struggle is far from being over.
For more True Story Project analyses on these countries, access them here.
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