AUKUS: A Game Changer In The Indo Pacific Region

France is far angrier about the geopolitical implications of AUKUS – Australia, UK and US alliance, than the submarine deal itself. Since the ‘Suez Canal Crisis’ in the year 1956, France has used NATO membership to piggyback on the US and UK to maintain its colonial power status. Prior to the World War II, France was a significant colonial power, in the yesteryears with colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas and a host of islands with naval bases. However, World War II marked a phenomenal change of guard as the US overtook the UK and France to claim leadership of the West. The war left both the UK and France in bad shape economically, leading to a collapse of both of their empires in the 50s and 60s, and thereby the loot from their erstwhile colonies. Thanks to Nehru, UK sold all its naval junk to India and kept the economy wheel running.

In order to maintain influence abroad against the backdrop of this economic collapse, France agreed to join forces with the US in promoting Western ideas and interests and containing communism under an umbrella called NATO. Since the founding of the alliance, France has played a critical role, acting as the glue between the US / UK and other European states that make up the alliance. France assisted the US / UK in maintaining influence over those states for the right of being able to piggyback on the US / UK outside of Europe. France has great influence in Africa and Far East Asia region.

Through their joint declaration on the submarine deal, the US, UK and Australia have effectively declared that they intend to focus on developing defense ties outside of Europe to the exclusion of France and other NATO states. This move hits at the core of the alliance, as it suggests that many of the benefits of NATO membership like preferential relations with US allies outside of Europe will be significantly downgraded going forward.

Australia on Sunday defended its decision to ditch a multi-billion-dollar order for the French submarines and opt instead for an alternative deal, which is under wraps, with the United States and Britain, saying it had flagged its concerns to Paris months ago. Canberra’s move enraged Paris, triggering an unprecedented diplomatic crisis that analysts say could do lasting damage to the US alliances with France and Europe. It has also riled China, the major power in the Indo-Pacific region. The United States has sought to assuage the anger in France, a NATO ally, and the French Government spokesman said on Sunday that President Emmanuel Macron would have a call with US President Joe Biden “in the next few days”.

Paris has recalled its envoys to both Washington and Canberra for consultations, which is a diplomatic word, for resetting the ties. This action is taken as the extreme actions, like in case of India and Pakistan, where High Commissioners have been recalled by both nations and chancery runs on minimum staff to provide emergency visa services.

Liz Truss, a new minister in the BoJo Government, is heading for a furious diplomatic confrontation with France on her first trip abroad as Foreign Secretary, as anger mounts in Paris over the cancellation of a £48 Billion nuclear submarine contract. Truss, whose appointment was one of the biggest surprises of the Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle last Wednesday, will arrive in the US on Sunday before a four-day visit to New York and Washington during which she is aiming to promote the Prime Minister’s vision of “global Britain” to international leaders, which means rising from the ashes like a phoenix!

But on Tuesday, when she convenes a meeting of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council – the UK, US, France, China and Russia – Truss will come face to face with her French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has described the way France has been treated by the UK, US and Australia over a new tripartite security pact, and the cancellation of the submarine deal, as a “stab in the back” for his ‘égalité’ nation.

It is believed that the French President, Emmanuel Macron, had never intended to attend in person but will address the UN assembly remotely, while lot of action will take place with all QUAD leaders in close discussions with the Potus, a clear strategy to counter China, with no baggage left in Afghanistan, which it seems to me a forgotten chapter and US Policy of ‘use and throw’ partners.

There is a lot of misinformation floating around regarding this purchase of diesel submarines from France. The previous Australian Prime Minister signed a contract in 2016 with France. The contract promised many things that enticed the Australians to go with France for simple diesel submarines rather the two, Repeat TWO, leading vendors of diesel submarines. Germany and Sweden are the two leading vendors of ‘obsolete’ diesel submarines, with the arrival of underwater drones and clearer seas.

But because they were by far the best they were both equally expensive and booked up for deliveries till 2050. France promised a low price, fast delivery, technology transfer, and building the submarines in Australia. As soon as the contract was signed France started changing the contract. The price went up by 6 times, the final delivery slipped to 2050, the submarines would be built in France (not Australia as promised) and there would be little (if any) technology transfer.

By contrast the US and the UK will transfer used nuclear submarines and non-nuclear weapons immediately, while new nuclear submarines are being built in Australia. The French have no one but themselves to blame for this bait and switch the ‘French Contract’, which was canceled by Australia for cause.

Add to this Australia will be able to use long range nuclear submarines in the next year or two and China is the biggest loser in this. The French are furious at Australia’s decision to cancel Au$ 90 Billion (£48 Billion) contract it signed with the French company Naval Group in 2016 for a fleet of 12 state-of-the-art attack class submarines. That deal became bogged down in cost overruns, delays and design changes. The new deal will see Canberra acquire nuclear-powered submarines built by the US and the UK, instead of those from France.

French newspaper La Tribune described the Australia-UK-US pact, known as AUKUS, as a “majestic slap in the face” for all those in France “who still want to believe that Joe Biden will be a different President to Donald Trump in matters of foreign policy”. The French are incensed at not being told by any of the countries involved that the submarine deal was being cancelled and that the new pact was coming into being.

Macron learned of the deal in a letter sent by the Australian Prime Minister, Excellency Scott Morrison, to the Élysée shortly before Morrison gave a press conference announcing the AUKUS pact. Effectively, Paris was faced with a fait accompli. Diplomatic sources in France say if the Australians were as unhappy with the contract as it stood, it would have been the normal, expected behaviour for them to have expressed their concerns to Paris.

Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, accused the Americans and Australians of “lies, deceit and duplicity” over the AUKUS deal. And he warned: “It’s not finished.” He said Australia had told France that it was breaking the submarine contract, and making a new deal with the US and UK, just one hour before Morrison announced this at the press conference. “That is why I say there has been duplicity, contempt and lies, and when you have an ally of the stature of France, you don’t treat them like that,” Le Drian said. Asked if there had been a failure of French intelligence in uncovering the secret deal, he replied: “The agreement project initiated by the US and Australia was decided by a small group and I’m not sure US and Australian ministers knew about it.

“When we see the US President with the Australian Prime Minister announce a new agreement with Boris Johnson, the breach of trust is profound. In a real alliance you talk to each other, you don’t hide things, you respect the other party, and that is why this is a real crisis.”

Truss risks finding herself plunged into one of the most bitter and potentially far-reaching diplomatic spats with France in recent memory when she is less than a week into her new role, and as she tries to promote a new, less European-focused foreign policy to the world. Speaking on Saturday night before the trip, Truss sounded upbeat about forging ever-stronger ties with the US in the post-Brexit era. “I’m delighted my first international visit as Foreign Secretary is to the United States – the UK’s closest and most important partner. At the UN general assembly, I look forward to convening global leaders to tackle the major issues of the day and projecting a positive, outward-looking global Britain that delivers for people across the UK.”

Johnson will also travel to the UN meeting and make a speech urging greater progress on climate change before the Cop26 meeting in Glasgow this year. But there are now fears that the argument with the French will overshadow his efforts to bring heads and mind together. Above and beyond the tearing up of the contract, Paris feels the decision of the US and the UK to sideline France, a key NATO ally, gravely damages its relationship with the organisation, which is in tatters.

While the Élysée has made no public comment on the international row, Macron’s decision to recall its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra is a historic low in diplomatic relations between the countries after what Paris has described as a betrayal and humiliation of a European partner. It is still unclear when the Australians decided that the dozen diesel submarines they had ordered from the French in 2016 would be obsolete before they were ready in the late 2030s or 2040s. But by the time Biden took office, they had made the decision to ask the US for the nuclear propulsion technology, Washington had only ever shared with the UK. This has got the China riled up and nervous.

According to one diplomatic source in Washington, Australian officials played their cards with perfecto finesse, first approached the Brits to check that London would give its support before going to the Biden administration, knowing they would be pushing at a partially open door. The appointment of Kurt Campbell as Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy coordinator was a sign that the US President was fully behind Campbell’s advocacy of the wholehearted “pivot to Asia”, a term used by Hillary Clinton during Obama I regime. Officials in Washington played down the impact on the general assembly. “France is not going to pull out of P5 or G7 events,” one said.

However, Lord Peter Ricketts, a former permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office and former UK ambassador to France, said the fallout from the affair would be extensive. “This is much more than a diplomatic spat about an arms deal or recalling ambassadors. The French had invested in a strategic security pact with Australia that they described as ‘structural’. Australia has now trashed that,” he said. It’s also an insult to the French technology too!

Lord Ricketts pointed out that France has “territory and military forces” in the Indo-Pacific and that Australia had changed its mind about what kind of submarine it wanted to the detriment of the French. “The [Shortfin] Barracuda is a nuclear submarine by design but Australia said they wanted a conventional submarine. Now Australia says they want nuclear.” He added: “France sees it as a betrayal by the British and the US, who did this secretly with Australia for the last six months. French diplomats have told me that America lied about what they were doing and they will be releasing documents to show that America lied. They are asking themselves, ‘What is the point of being a NATO ally if this is how the US behaves?” “You will remember about 18 months ago, Emmanuel Macron described NATO as ‘brain dead’ and this will confirm that view. This has caused a huge rift down the middle of NATO.” The former ambassador predicted France would now be looking to allies closer to home to beef up European security and would “pull the shutters down on NATO”.

To be fair, France was 2 years behind schedule and billions over budget. Australia started the bidding process in 2015 and Australia awarded the contract to France and they were supposed to begin construction in 2018. Australia’s paid Au$ 350 Million, there hasn’t been a submarine produced yet, and they’ve got a litany of problems.

The project became severely behind schedule and Australia got tired of the delays. Australia has been mumbling about finding someone else to do the work for a year and a half and again just a couple months ago. This was no surprise to France this was their contract to lose and they did. Plus Australia got the opportunity to upgrade as they wanted nuclear powered submarines in the first place. France wouldn’t cut them in on the nuclear technology but I guess the US was more generous.

As far as Macron is concerned, what goes around comes around! He has made life as difficult as possible for post Brexit UK. A top Australian defence official said Wednesday the country was actively considering alternatives should a troubled multibillion-dollar French submarine deal fall through.

The new trilateral deal has cast into doubt the united front that Biden is seeking to forge against China’s growing power. French government spokesman Gabriel Attal told BFM TV that Macron would seek “clarification” of the cancellation in his call with Biden. Discussions would then need to take place over contract clauses, notably compensation for the French side. European Union leaders are certain to discuss the issue at talks in Slovenia on Oct. 5, said an EU diplomat, saying it had raised questions over the transatlantic relationship and Europe’s own geopolitical ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. “I think the French… will milk it for all it’s worth,” the diplomat said, referring to Macron’s long-standing support for greater European strategic autonomy, though many EU states are reluctant to weaken security ties with the United States.

Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said Canberra was “upfront, open and honest” with France about its concerns. He declined to reveal costs of the new pact, saying only that “it’s not going to be a cheap project”. Britain’s role in the trilateral partnership demonstrates its readiness to be “hard-headed” in defending its interests post-Brexit, newly appointed Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in an article published on Sunday. British commentators frequently misread UK-US relations, speaking about the “special relationship” with deep emotion. In contrast, the US has always viewed it in highly transactional terms.

Following coordination issues over the Afghanistan withdrawal and concerns over the reliability of the US as an ally, one of the new foreign secretary’s first duties has been defined as “rekindling” this relationship. In reality, Truss should see this as a wake-up call to identify what the UK wants from the US and what the country is willing to give in return. The UK wants a deep bilateral defence relationship, US investment in European security, the reduction of trade barriers and help with coordinating a global response to climate change. Any UK concession or extra commitment should be leveraged to enhance one or more of these priorities.

The most difficult challenge domestically will be navigating UK-Europe relations. Pre-Brexit, the UK benefited significantly from being able to coordinate its foreign and security policy with EU members. Ignoring the future relationship with the EU was a significant gap in the Integrated Review (the government’s comprehensive review of defence, security and foreign policy launched in March 2021). Given the UK’s capabilities, the EU may be open to UK involvement, which could offset souring relations over Brexit.

Truss needs to set out a proper framework for UK-EU foreign policy cooperation. This must go beyond any trilateral of UK, France and Germany, as many of Europe’s security challenges involve peripheral states. Rather, the UK should look to engage with EU foreign policy discussions (albeit not as a decision maker), try and shape common positions in the UN and regionally, offer to assist with EU missions where they align with UK interests, and contribute to future strategies over continental and Mediterranean security. She said it also showed Britain’s commitment to security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

It is half a century since Harold Wilson formally withdrew Britain from the ‘East of Suez’. BoJo clearly aches to return, to prove that he can somehow punch above his weight and put Britain back to the world stage after Brexit. France has been badly bruised and it will ensure that an EU army is raised in order to counter NATO and replace the US forces from Europe. India get what it wants as nuclear powered submarines will make the QUAD forces stronger and China is controlled.

Essentially it is the outcome of an industrial dispute over who will build eight submarines for the Australian navy. Incidentally Moscow is also building 8 new submarines, which can patrol the world even with frozen high seas!

Contrary to the media coverage, France is only the sub plot and not the main story. China is the main issue and Beijing understands this and it has reacted strongly. Therefore it has got the message, a Chinese communist paper has said that Australia will now be a legitimate nuclear target for China because of this new development.

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