Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.09.29

AUKUS and France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: wounded but not sunk

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. UK India

An important turning point in the Indo-Pacific turbulent order, AUKUS – the new alliance between Australia, the US and the UK – is also a blow and a shock for France. Paris has never been consulted, nor notified in advance, despite the historic importance of the deal and the huge implications that it bears for France’s interests, not least the brutal termination of the contract to provide 12 submarines to Canberra. The hot anger of the French Foreign minister Le Drian, denouncing it as a “stab in the back”, is thus quite understandable. Paris’ relations with the US and Australia (not to mention UK) are now experiencing a deep crisis of confidence. While AUKUS will complicate Paris’ efforts, the French Indo-Pacific strategy and commitment will endure.

The damaging effects of AUKUS

After AUKUS, France relations with Australia are now severely damaged. Back in 2018, President Macron chose to unveil France’s Indo-Pacific strategy at the Garden Island base in Sydney, signaling that Australia would become one of France’s key partners in its endeavor. The submarine contract was a structuring element of the relation, strongly committing the two countries. It has never been a long and calm river, with Paris being very much aware of the difficulties in the implementation of the contract. Nonetheless, Canberra never signaled its new preference for a nuclear-powered option, a solution Naval Group is mastering (whether Paris would have agreed to share this technology is another story). Instead, it went to the U.S. and UK to seek an alternative, without consideration for Paris that is now feeling the burn of deception and duplicity. This comes on top of significant economic losses, with impact on thousands of jobs in France.

The ire is even more acute vis à vis the American ally. Striking the AUKUS deal and accepting to sell SSN to Australia is a pure realpolitik move. The Biden administration has demonstrated that its systemic rivalry with China is now informing its whole external policy. The frustration of an historic ally seems acceptable when it comes to the core U.S. interests: staying ahead of China and checking it are now clearly one of these. AUKUS shows that Washington prioritizes partners that can guarantee close cooperation, interoperability and, above all, complete alignment. This calls into question the role of other partners such as Japan and India, and, of course, France and Europe. If Tokyo has welcomed the new alliance as it ensures a steady American security engagement in the region, some in Japan may also feel an increased pressure from Washington to step up their own game.

France’s anger is also reinforced by the seeming inconsistency of the Biden administration’s rhetoric on its allies. In January, Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, called for a “chorus of voices” in front of China, with the Europeans being the most crucial of U.S. partners. Only the UK has been picked up. France, a leading European power in the Indo-Pacific and a most proactive defender of an Indo-Pacific approach within the EU, has been set aside. In addition, the unfortunate timing of the AUKUS, the very day the EU published its strategy for the cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, reflects the lack of consideration for the Europeans. In fact, achieving a political consensus among 27 countries that have diverse interests in the Indo-Pacific and enjoy different relations with China is an exceptional achievement that would require tremendous efforts.

In this respect, the US decision is likely to complicate the coordination with the Biden administration on China and the Indo-Pacific, weakening rather than strengthening the democratic front the US aims to build vis à vis Beijing. Some say that the French strategic autonomy has complicated the efforts to set up such a grouping. However, reality is that French and US Indo-Pacific strategies have been working in synergy, with Paris playing the role of a very efficient convening power, able to coordinate with the four Quad countries as well as the ASEAN nations that do not wish to appear as confrontational towards China. Already, the Southeast Asian powers, such as Indonesia or Malaysia, are airing their concern about a new arms race and proliferation risks in the region prompted by AUKUS.

Hence, AUKUS seems more damaging than French strategic autonomy to building up a coalition of like-minded partners to face China. Beijing will only be so happy to use this development to try to drive a wedge between them. In the wake of Afghanistan, the widening gap between the U.S. rhetoric on the importance of allies and partners, and the lack of consultation and consideration on important moves only urge the Europeans to accelerate the path towards more strategic autonomy.

At the end of the day, AUKUS questions the very nature of today’s alliances. The very fluid geostrategic environment in the Indo-Pacific compels all players to constantly review their choices and adjust their posture to maximize their gains, hedging against risks and protecting their interests. The Indo-Pacific is therefore a fertile ground for flexible arrangements, strategic partnerships, minilateral arrangements, issue-based coalitions. The announcement of this new alliance seems to run contrary to this trend. AUKUS should be an agent to foster greater coordination with like-minded countries in the region, not a brake.

France’s Indo-Pacific commitment will go on

France has every reason to be furious and let others know about it. The French diplomacy is indeed strongly showing its deep dissatisfaction and sense of treason towards its allies and partners. This theatrical reaction is also meant to up France’s game to negotiate a proper compensation for its economic loss—and the loss of face. Over time, dust will settle, and the partnerships will recover. Australia is an important neighbor to France’s overseas territories in the South Pacific as the two countries, along with New Zealand, are bound by security arrangements to coordinate HA/DR activities in the area (FRANZ) and monitor IUU fishing. With the U.S., this is the latest major crisis in the transatlantic alliance that has already overcome the moments of frictions dating back to 2003, over the war in Iraq, or 2013, then in Syria. The US (and Australia) will have to work hard to heal the French wounds, as it is in their interest to get France and Europe onboard in the Indo-Pacific.

AUKUS will certainly make life more difficult for Atlanticists and for the proponents of an ambitious French posture in the Indo-Pacific alike. It is strengthening the camp of the skeptics, who have questioned the Indo-Pacific strategy from the start, fearing capacity overstretch and an entrapment in a confrontational U.S. policy towards China.

This said, France’s Indo-Pacific commitment will not weaken, not least because the nation maintains significant sovereign interests in the region. Paris is a capable and responsible stakeholder that has already demonstrated the credibility of its commitment to support a rules-based order and stability in the region. This year alone, Paris sent its nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) in the South China Sea in February, held a quadrilateral France-US-Japan-Australia amphibious exercises in May in Kyushu, led the La Pérouse naval exercise with the four Quad powers in the Indian Ocean and sent Rafale fighters all the way to Polynesia and Hawaii this summer.

After AUKUS, France will step up its efforts to build up a network of middle powers. Japan and India, while welcoming the new alliance, will strive to keep Paris fully engaged in the region, and New Delhi might be interested in a new defense deal. Paris is in good way to sell 36 Rafale fighters to Indonesia and is working on fostering its partnerships with Malaysia, the Philippines and ASEAN, with which a development partnership was inked in March. French and European’s inclusive visions for the Indo-Pacific are convergent with ASEAN’s approach.

More importantly, Paris’ Indo-Pacific approach will be resolutely articulated with the EU’s brand-new strategy in the region from now on. The two approaches usefully work in synergy and complement each other. The EU’s strategy has a strong focus on building resilient value chains, especially in semiconductors, including by setting up a deal with Taiwan. Standards setting in trade, digital domains and emerging technologies, “in line with democratic principles”, is one of the priority objectives of the EU. The strategy even mentions “the EU’s interest in engaging with the QUAD on issues of common interest such as climate change, technology or vaccines”. This shows that the EU’s priorities are in line with America’s core concerns and that strategic autonomy is not averse to a necessary and close cooperation with Washington and other key partners in the Indo-Pacific. The EU being a normative superpower and a major economic player, the U.S. will not have the luxury to dismiss it if it really wants to weigh on China’s choices. In the glimpse of the brave new world that AUKUS just unveiled, France and Europe remain significant and relevant players.

*This column is a short and adjusted version of a longer piece published by the Russian International Affairs Council.