The security pact between the US, UK and Australia did not cause a rift within NATO, but it is not helping strengthen the alliance, either.
On September 21, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with US President Joe Biden at the White House. The talks were nothing short of a diplomatic coup for London.
They came right after the announcement of the so-called AUKUS, a three-way partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Under its terms, the government in Canberra agreed to procure American nuclear-propelled submarines with the aim of modernising the Australian navy.
The UK joined in, turning the defence deal into a security pact focused on the Indo-Pacific region. All of this came to the detriment of France whose $38.6bn contract with Australia to build 12 diesel submarines was scrapped.
For Johnson, this whole story feels like a vindication of Global Britain, the mantra positing that post-Brexit UK, liberated from Europe’s shackles, is free to assume a larger role in world affairs, diversifying its foreign policy partnerships. The free trade agreement signed recently with Australia and the hosting of COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, are two more feathers in the British prime minister’s cap – although he is yet to secure a much-wanted signal from Washington that a trade deal with the UK is a priority for the US.
While the Biden administration is embroiled in a fight with France over the submarine sale, it appears the UK – rather than the pesky Europeans – is a partner of choice for the US, as it faces off with China, its principal geopolitical rival.
Reality, as ever, is more complex than what Johnson would like to present it. For starters, neither the UK nor France has the capability to affect the military balance in the Indo-Pacific region. The fact that the Royal Navy has deployed in the region HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of its two aircraft carriers, along with a strike group and two further patrol vessels, changes little. The same goes for the Mission Jeanne d’Arc and Operation Clemenceau 21 carried out by the French or the presence of its military personnel across the area.
What is happening in the region is a strategic game which involves China, on the one hand, and the US with its regional allies and partners, such as Japan, Australia and India (the so-called Quad) as well as South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand, on the other.
For Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the opportunity to deepen defence ties with the US strengthens Australia’s hand against a growingly assertive China. To be fair, there are costs too: the American-built subs will not be operational for a long time to come, while the French contract could have been put into use more speedily, giving the Australian navy a boost. But in truth, the US is the one security player that matters and can offer protection vis-à-vis China.
Will AUKUS upset NATO, putting the UK and France, the two leading European allies, at odds? According to a recent article in Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese government, and some observers, the North Atlantic Alliance is bound to take a hit. Indeed, the sharp exchange of rhetoric, the withdrawal of French ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, and the cancellation of a UK-French ministerial meeting on missile collaboration could create the impression of a deepening crisis.
But this is likely only a temporary spat. There are several reasons why a more serious rift cannot occur.
First of all, London and Paris have clashed on more than one occasion before, notably over the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but none produced a lasting crisis.
Secondly, they have robust bilateral ties in security and defence. This was underscored in 2010 by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron signing the so-called Lancaster House Treaties, which cover a number of issues – from cooperation on maintaining nuclear arsenals to setting up a joint expedition force to counter terrorism.
Thirdly, the rest of NATO members, as well as Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, are staying away from the dispute to avoid negative fallout. They would rather wait for the French and the Americans to patch things up and there are already signs this is happening. After a phone call on September 22, presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron issued a conciliatory joint statement. The French ambassador is returning to Washington next week and tete-a-tete between the two leaders is imminent.
But Beijing has a reason to be happy. The AUKUS crisis gives France and perhaps others in the EU an excuse to distance themselves from the hawkish stance of the Biden administration vis-à-vis China.
What of the EU? France has used the crisis to argue the case for a more robust European foreign policy. The submarine debacle “only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy”, read a statement by Jean-Yves Le Drian and Florence Parly, the foreign and defence ministers.
The president of the EU Council, Charles Michel, and Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, have rallied behind Macron too, accusing Biden of following in the footsteps of Trump and his America First policies.
Yet it is far from clear if this message resounds in EU capitals. Certainly not in Berlin, where the forthcoming federal elections top the agenda. There also is no shortage of sceptics who see the strategic autonomy agenda as undermining the alliance with the US.
Others are wary of being dragged into an unnecessary fight with the Americans because of the French. “What’s of concern is that Paris is presenting something which was essentially a bilateral business deal as a blow to the EU as such,” an unnamed diplomat from Central Europe told Politico.
Yet France is partly right. With the US growingly focused on China and the Indo-Pacific, Europeans should take care of their own security. That involves standing up to Russia, projecting stability in the Mediterranean region, countering malign interference in domestic affairs, fighting transnational terrorism and crime. Achieving those goals necessitates closer cooperation between France and the EU, on the one hand, and the UK, on the other.
Sadly, the prospects for such cooperation are not very good. There might not be a full-blown rift in the offing between Paris and London, but relations are in a bad shape and unlikely to improve. AUKUS is in no way a turning point for European security, but it does not help either.
Dimitar Bechev is Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna.