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AUKUS, the Indo-Pacific, and France’s Role: Fluctuat Nec Mergitur Russian International Affairs Council, September 22, 2021

The announcement of the new AUKUS alliance between Australia, the UK and the U.S. came as 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 strong reaction and hot anger of the French Foreign minister Le Drian, denouncing it as a “stab in the back”, is thus quite understandable. The new alliance is indeed a game changer for the Indo-Pacific geopolitics, and beyond. France will have to adapt to this new reality, AUKUS may complicate Paris’ efforts, but its Indo-Pacific strategy and commitment will endure.

A game changer in the Indo-Pacific

The Australian decision to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines and to enter a trilateral alliance proposed by the U.S. and the UK opens a new era in the Indo-Pacific. It reflects a dramatic change in Canberra’s posture vis-à-vis Beijing in recent years. Australia’s new threat assessment motivated a very politically sensitive decision: to step up its game and move from a middle power to a nearly great power status, by entering the exclusive club of the nuclear-powered submarines holders (China, France, India, Russia, the UK and the U.S.). This choice also deepens Australia’s dependence on Washington for its defense on the long term. At the same time, Canberra will have to wait until at least 2040 to get its first SSN—as compared to 2030 for the French conventional subs. At the same time, the U.S. decision to sell this strategic equipment has created a precedent, with potential implications in terms of proliferation, as countries, such as China, might feel encouraged to sell similar devices to Pakistan or North Korea. As such, this move has destabilizing effects, fueling an arms race already nurtured by China’s formidable military build-up.

Besides, AUKUS marks a turning point in the order transition in the Indo-Pacific. In front of China, the networking of the U.S. alliances and partnerships has been going on for a while, but this new trilateral formation is quite a new story. It is designed to be strong, close, and enduring. The sharing of a key strategic defense equipment, but maybe as important, cooperation in such critical domains as new technologies, AI, quantum and so on, is designed to bind the three partners “for generations”. AUKUS thus becomes the new arrangement around which the U.S. plans to organize its strategy in the Indo-Pacific, in front of China.

The Quad was still too diverse—Japan and India have their own limitations in terms of defense cooperation—but with AUKUS, Washington has found a way to reunite a core group of allies to closely sail on its line and help keeping the upper hand over China. Getting the UK, not an Indo-Pacific power, onboard does not sound like a most relevant choice, but it does make sense if the U.S. prioritizes closeness, interoperability and alignment. The three countries have indeed a long history of close cooperation, not least with the intelligence sharing arrangement of the Five Eyes. AUKUS will thus become the new core around which the U.S. will organize the constellation of its partners to check China. This is certainly bad news for Beijing. At the same time, Beijing will also exploit the AUKUS deal to its advantage, in order to further justify its military moves, which probably means that the security situation in the Indo-Pacific is likely to worsen.

A whiplash for France and Europe

An important turning point in the Indo-Pacific turbulent order, AUKUS is also a blow for France.

First, its 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 so far demonstrated that its systemic rivalry with China is 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.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 in the region prompted by AUKUS.

Hence, the clumsy AUKUS announcement seems more damaging than French strategic autonomy when it comes to building up solidarity between 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. How should allies behave towards each other? Where should the red lines be? 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, mini-lateral arrangements, issue-based coalitions. The announcement of this new alliance seems to run contrary to this trend. There should be a deep reflection on how to articulate these strategic partnerships and old-style alliances. In addition, the beauty of the “Indo-Pacific” as a geopolitical construct lies in its polymorphic, flexible nature that helps create coalitions of the willing and enable coordination without antagonizing effects. 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 endure

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. Paris should, however, be careful not to send wrong messages. It makes little sense to put brakes on the discussions towards a EU-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement that will be mutually beneficial, serving to reinforce the EU’s (hence France’s) position in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

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 Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief 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 U.S. (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. Territories in both the Indian Ocean (Islands of Mayotte and La Réunion) and the Pacific (New Caledonia, French Polynesia…), host some 1.5 million citizens and more than 90% of its large EEZ (9 million km²). France maintains a military presence of 8,000 personnel to take care of this vast area. Therefore, France’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is not a mere rhetorical posture but a sustained commitment. Besides, some of France’s major trade and security partners are located in the region, while the safety of the maritime routes linking Europe and East Asia is key to its economic security.

Finally, the Indo-Pacific is the primary locus of the Sino-American strategic rivalry that will (with all probability) shape the future world order. France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, 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 a Japanese remote island, 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, which may explain why the EU emerged as one of the most trusted partners for these countries.

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.

> Read the article on the website of the Russian International Affairs Council.

Alliances AUKUS Australia China France Indo-Pacific United Kingdom United States