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AUKUS submarine deal demonstrates wider global tensions

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Australia, much like Taiwan, is a strategic outpost of the democratic world in an Indo-Pacific region mostly dominated by an increasingly confident China. Small in population, but punching above their weight economically and defensively, they have never had much of an industry for defence research and development – which seems sensible, as they can only count around 60,000 regular personnel across all of their defence services. They traditionally looked first to Britain, as part of the Empire, and then to America to provide their war materiel and defensive umbrella against first the violent expansionism of imperial Japan, and now the more measured advance of China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia looked elsewhere in 2016, however, signing a £40 billion contract for 16 diesel submarines to be provided by France – a deal which, this week, has been called off in favour of Britain and America providing the technology instead. This decision has stunned the French government and its diplomatic and defence community, raising allegations of betrayal by countries which were previously viewed as key allies. This deal, known as AUKUS, will see the US and the UK become the guarantors of Australian maritime power, as all three states look to counter Chinese influence in the Australian near abroad.

The United States Navy and the Royal Navy are well-supplied by the defence industries of the US and the UK, which lead the world in submarine technology. The American Virginia and British Astute class submarines represent some of the finest naval warfare technology ever produced – and now Australia will be brought into the fold, as a heavily-armed outpost against Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region. The Royal Australian Navy was given its traditions and ethos by the Royal Navy, and the Australian defence establishment mixes heavily with British and American forces. And while the move for the UK and US to provide new submarines was met in Beijing with a standardly scathing example of Chinese diplomatic disdain, it has baffled and wounded the French government. 

At the Quai d’Orsay the sense of betrayal by les AngloSaxons is extreme. In a diplomatic row which has no precedent in the history of Franco-American relations, France has recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Canberra and cancelled a gala celebration at its embassy in Washington: ironically a dinner to a celebrate a naval battle during the Revolutionary War, when the French beat the Royal Navy in the cause of supporting American independence and weakening their old enemy. Then the Anglo-Saxon world was split between loyalists to the Crown and rebellious patriots: now the United States, Britain and Australia are working together. All are English-speaking, all have their basis in English common law, and all have a robust commitment to the current world order and the diplomatic rule of law. With the AUKUS deal agreed, a different geopolitical democratic bloc opposing China has emerged without any continental European participation, a fact that must be felt keenly in Paris and Berlin.

This deal represents not only a cutting out of France, but of the EU as a whole. While France reels the slighting of the major defence power of the bloc will only spur on calls for a unified European defence strategy, championed by Germany and smaller EU defence powers who see in the concept of a unified and concrete European defence establishment a chance to gain greater influence and defence while sharing the astronomic costs that defence projects entail. That the US and Britain, for decades deeply unimpressed by a European failure to spend and maintain larger defence establishments and the concomitant costs to their own exchequers of countering Russian influence in Eastern Europe, would perform their own skulduggery to cut an EU nation out of a major defence contract will only add weight to the dream of an EU army, something that Britain would have vetoed instantly prior to Brexit. Without this impediment, what was previously a federalist fantasy may now become a serious consideration.

This deal will strike at the root of French defence thinking and its conception of itself as a nation. It was dubious, as the Second World War ended, whether France would be considered a victorious partner of the Allies as the government-in-exile intended or as an Axis power, in the dark legacy of Vichy and Pétain. Charles de Gaulle fought hard to make sure it was part of the occupation forces of Germany, but never forgot the British sinking the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in 1941 and then forcing the French to abandon Lebanon and Syria in the Levant Crisis of 1945. These events are barely remembered in the UK, but they stuck in the French diplomatic and geostrategic memory – it was this sense of betrayal that led to de Gaulle blocking British entry into the EEC in 1963 and 1967. France set itself on a difficult path in the post-war period, largely by refusing to dance to an American tune: it desperately clung to its colonies in the Far East and North Africa through brutal and unsuccessful wars of independence, without much support or sympathy from the US or UK. Between a failure to back up the US in Iraq (which led to the brief emergence of ‘freedom fries’ in American fast food restaurants) and a lukewarm involvement in Afghanistan, France has not recently played the game when it comes to being a strategic partner of the US and the UK.

Gaullist France always considered Britain incompatible with a united Europe, and always likely to have its loyalties elsewhere due to the sizeable Atlanticist and Commonwealth lobby in British government circles. Brexit was the first vindication of this French fear, and the AUKUS deal will be another. France and the EU feel cut out, but the ultimate truth is that they seemingly have little to offer defensively against China, and Australia has chosen to go with those that do. What this means for the new cold war with China – and for relations between the EU and the new English-speaking bloc – remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that America after Trump and Britain after Brexit are now increasingly confident in asserting their geostrategic aims.

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