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An Expert Explains: Why the defence deal among US, Australia and UK has irked France

A defence deal among Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom that seeks to check China in the Pacific has enraged France, which has lost a lucrative submarine contract with Australia. Why are democratic allies with the same overall objectives undercutting each other?

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: September 21, 2021 1:52:59 pm
Presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron at the G7 Summit. (Photo: Twitter/@POTUS)

A defence deal among Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom that seeks to check China in the Pacific has enraged France, which has lost a lucrative submarine contract with Australia. Why are democratic allies with the same overall objectives undercutting each other?

What prompted the signing of the trilateral defence agreement among the US, UK, and Australia?

The nub of the problem is this: Australia had initially wanted conventionally powered submarines, and they signed a contract with France in 2016. But the security situation in the region has since deteriorated significantly in terms of the threat from China. There has been a rethink in Canberra along the lines of, “Look, to be able to deal effectively with the expansion of Chinese naval power and China’s bullying of Australia, we will need more powerful submarines.”

Nuclear-powered submarines are far more powerful than conventionally powered ones, they are more stealthy, they have a far longer range, and they can operate for longer periods under water. And to take on the challenge from the Chinese, who are building submarines and ships in such large numbers, there is no option but to invest in better technology.

The negotiations on the new AUKUS deal seem to have been ongoing for the last six months — recent reports suggest that the Australians were talking to the British, the British went to the Americans, and then the three countries decided that they would take a fresh look at the issues at hand. Subsequently, Australia cancelled its French contract and announced that it will start work on the new deal with the US.

Was there a way in which France could have been included in these negotiations?

When you’re going to ditch a friend, you don’t tell them until the last minute! It was probably not fair — the French should have been told in advance; they were completely blindsided, and that is one of the reasons they are so upset.

Two weeks ago, there was a meeting between the Australian and French ministers, and the joint statement said the submarine programme would continue. To go back to the real-life example, when you are about to leave a friend, you hint, “Oh I have problems with what we are doing, so let me rethink…”, and Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison says that something to that effect had indeed been suggested. But the French say, “We didn’t see any sign of this, and this is really, absolutely unfair”, it is “stabbing [us] in the back”.

How common is such ‘ditching’ of an ally in international politics?

Countries do change their minds, even though it rankles when it is among friends.

In the early 1970s, President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt reversed his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policy of extremely close ties with the USSR, expelled Russian military observers, purged the government of pro-Soviet Nasserists and, following the peace treaties with Israel, switched over to the American side. More recently, in 2015, France cancelled a €1.2 billion deal struck four years previously to sell two warships to Russia.

But the scale of the current situation is different. France has been the only European power that has fully endorsed the idea of the Indo-Pacific that the US and Australia support; in April 2019, they took on the Chinese in the strategic Taiwan Strait; they have stood up for the freedom of navigation. In a sense there is no difference in the objectives of France, the US and Australia in the Pacific region, and the diplomacy could have been a lot better. Australia needed the nuclear submarines and, ironically, there is a nuclear variant of the vessel the French were selling — it was the Australians who said they wanted the conventional sub. There will now likely be some effort from the Americans and the Australians to find a way to bring the ball to the French, and they get over their anger and feeling of betrayal.

What about the revenue that France will be losing?

It was a large deal, worth about AUD 90 billion, or USD 66 billion. It was billed as the “contract of the century” in France, and it was very important for the French naval industry and French presence. A part of the French complaint concerns the business side of the deal and the money that has been lost, so there will likely be some legal recourse, a demand for compensation, etc. But the signing of the contract was preceded and followed by an intensive political engagement between Paris and Canberra, and there was a sense that the countries could be strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific, with shared objectives, working together. The cancellation of the deal shattered this larger framework.

Joe Biden participates in a videoconference with Morrison and Johnson, from the White House in Washington (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

What does this mean for the EU’s Indo-Pacific policy?

The AUKUS announcement came just before the EU was to announce its own Indo-Pacific policy. In the European narrative, the US is undermining their efforts in the region — and the fact that Britain, which has walked out of the EU, is involved, adds a layer of complication. The feeling in some quarters in Europe is that the US is unreliable — the current situation has come soon after the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan — and that Europe needs to act on its own.

This is somewhat like India’s “strategic autonomy” argument — however, there is a problem. Most European countries are reluctant to spend much on defence. They’ve had it good as a collective, and are happy to live with the Americans doing more on the security side. That is unlikely to change in the near term — while some countries like France might argue for more extensive strategic autonomy, others like the Central Europeans or Northern Europeans might not.

What are the implications for New Delhi, considering India, France, and Australia had their first trilateral dialogue on the Indo-Pacific recently?

The French have cancelled a trilateral dialogue meeting of foreign ministers that was supposed to take place in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. In the near term, there is a setback. But India’s relationships with the US, UK, and Australia have improved dramatically over the last five years. France too, has been a very important for India, and there is great trust in France in New Delhi today. A quarrel among its friends is uncomfortable for India. To deal with this situation, India can step up its own security and defence engagement with France. For example, India is planning to buy more submarines — and there is the argument that it is better to have nuclear submarines rather than conventional ones because India has the same problem as Australia with regard to the Chinese navy showing up close.

France could be a partner here — because it is already a resident power in the Indian Ocean, and India has an interest and stake in keeping it there. At the same time, India is happy to be a part of the Quad, and to work with the Americans, British, and Australians. The submarine question could become an important opening for India and France to start taking a fresh look at more things they can do together in the Indian Ocean.

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What happens here onward?

There is no doubt that the objectives of France are in a sense the same as those of India, Australia, the US, or UK. But there is a sense of pride, a sense of betrayal, and the loss of the contract. These are serious setbacks for the French. But the French are also realists, they will come back, and that’s where India can play an important role in reaching out to them and helping them stay engaged in the Indo-Pacific, while strengthening its own partnership.

(C Raja Mohan is Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and Contributing Editor on international affairs forThe Indian Express. He spoke to Mehr Gill)

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