In India, the already entrenched and active French lobby in Delhi will likely use this to try drive a wedge between the US and India (something they already work on) in part to protect/promote their sales. The catastrophic US withdrawal from Afghanistan may also be used as an example of US ‘unreliability’.
AUKUS is a big deal. The newly announced Australia, United Kingdom, United States defence and security partnership is about more than just the nuclear submarine fleet that the US and the UK will now help Australia to develop.
It will extend to deeper and broader cooperation in air, ordinance, AI, cyber, submarine cables and more. This is important as the Australian subs themselves may not be ready until 2040.
At the same time, the US and Australia announced a range of bilateral agreements. Prime Minister Scott MorrisonsaidAustralia will “rapidly acquire long-range strike capabilities to enhance the ADF’s ability to deliver strike effects across our air, land and maritime domains”. This will include Tomahawk cruise missiles “enabling our maritime assets to strike land targets at greater distances, with better precision”.
There was more, including a guided missile construction facility in Australia and, according to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton, possibly basing—leading Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of The Australian, to quip that Australia “armed ourselves with Americans”.
All this has enormous implications for the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific. There is a lot to unpack.
In this first run through, let’s look at what this means for the jockeying for Indo-Pacific position and relevance by the United Kingdom, France and the European Union.
AUKUS is extremely important in defining the posture of post-Brexit Britain, and was described by the UK’s national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove as a “profound strategic shift”. It reinforces the “special relationship” with the US, highlighted by Biden and Johnson signing the “New Atlantic Charter”in June 2021, and builds on the UK-Australia trade deal also announced in June.
The Johnson government clearly has the intention of being seen to be back “East of Suez”, in collaboration with two of its Five Eyes partners (US and Australia), and with its increasingly close partner Japan.
If London can sort out its relationship with India—which would require at the very least reining in its domestic pro-Pakistan (and pro-China) lobby—it becomes a front-runner in the Quad + sweepstakes.
While the UK doesn’t have much territory in the Pacific—just lonely little Pitcairn—it does have strategic Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and is “showing presence” and interoperability with the US with the Queen Elizabeth carrier group, and has outsized commercial influence in the region via levers such as being a global centre for maritime insurance and home to the International Maritime Organization.
It also has potentially useful regional defenceagreements, such as the Five Powers Defence Arrangements with Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand, as well asbases in Brunei, Bahrain and Oman, and is ramping up diplomatic presence, including in the Pacific Islands, with new High Commissions in Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.
AUKUS is a statement for London—not to be underestimated.
At the same time as AUKUS was announced, Australia cancelled its deal for a dozen French submarines.
The deal was controversial from the beginning. Had Australia gone with the main competitor for the bid, Japan, it would have consolidated the Quad and invigorated Japan’s confidence in high-tech defence collaboration. It also would have kept costs predictable, and delivered subs faster.
However, a deal with Japan would have displeased Beijing. China didn’t seem to object when Australia signed the deal with France instead.
The French deal, with French government-tied company DCNS (now called Naval Group), was problematic from early on.
The plans for the DCNS Scorpene submarines being built in India were hacked, raising security concerns. Then the costs to Australia nearlydoubled, from US$36.4 billion to close to US$65.5 billion. And there were delays. And promised job numbers dwindled. All of it reported in the Australian press.
France is doing a good job at acting shocked, shocked, I tell you! but the Australians have been talking about the problems for a long time. It was such an open secret, the Japanese even offered to come back in.
So why the big show, including the recalling of France’s Ambassadors to the US and Australia, and the dramatic “stabbed in the back” language?
It helps to understand the context of the original deal. At the signing, Hervé Guillou, Naval Group’s chairman, explicitly said the deal was important as a signal for other potential buyers: “We are…bidding in the Netherlands today and that is one really important bid because they are looking as well for expeditionary submarines. This is very important. It is also gives credibility to other bids but on smaller submarines like India, Poland and Brazil.”
That is one reason why France has to paint this as political—a perfidious“Anglo-Saxon” betrayal—so that the actual cost and technical aspects of their products aren’t examined too closely. And—if they manage the political warfare properly—potential clients might even feel like this is a slight on them as well.
In India, the already entrenched and active French lobby in Delhi will likely use this to try drive a wedge between the US and India (something they already work on) in part to protect/promote their sales. The catastrophic US withdrawal from Afghanistan may also be used as an example of US “unreliability”.
The pro-Paris lobby will similarly go after the reputations/reliability of the UK and Australia in India as well. As long as the Quad doesn’t include France, Paris will see it as a threat to its interests.
France’s efforts will be joined by the anti-Quad Russia and China lobbies. Beijing is at it already, including a September 18Global Timesarticle titled: “AUKUS gives Canberra special treatment, a psychological blow for Japan, India as Quad members”. The editorial sidelines the fact this will increase overall Quad capabilities and instead tries to foment distrust and jealousy. If Beijing is at it this fast and blatantly in public, one can only imagine what is going on behind closed doors.
Another reason France is in diplomatic hysterics can also be tracked back to what Guillou said at the time—that the deal is like a “50-year wedding”.
Currently, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is using similar language: “We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed”, and he was quoted as saying he was “angry and bitter about this break up”.
In other words, he’s saying to all potential clients: we French are trustworthy, but these Anglo-Saxons will cheat on you and break your heart.
Le Drian also wants everyone to know there is a pre-nup. “This is not over… We have an intergovernmental deal that we signed with great fanfare in 2019, with precise commitments, with clauses, how are they getting out of it? So this is not the end of the story.”
Hopefully, once Paris feels it has protected the delicate honour of its defence sector, it will quietly appreciate how the deal increases overall security in the Indo-Pacific (which includes many French territories), andwill continue with its otherwise helpful collaborations in the region.
Just before the announcement of AUKUS, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in her State of the European Union speech,“Europe can—and clearly should—be able and willing to do more on its own… What we need is the European Defence Union.”
And, as it happens, just after AUKUS was announced, the EU launched its “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”. The EU’s chairman, Charles Michel, said AUKUS “further demonstrates the need for a common EU approach in a region of strategic interest”. And the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said, “We must survive on our own, as others do”.
The Union clearly wants a role in the most dynamic zone on the planet, and AUKUS seems to be spurring it on even more—the EU even raised the possibility of a trade deal with Taiwan.
Now to see if the EU can withstand Chinese influence on a union in which even the weakest member can torpedo policy.
At the same time, France, the Netherlands and Germany already published their own Indo-Pacific strategies, and it will be interesting to see how national and Union interests are balanced.
Whatever happens, a lot more countries are going to be serenading outside India’s window, looking to gain favour and elbow aside other suitors.
Bottom line: AUKUS has just been announced, and already Beijing must be scurrying to comprehend, contain and counter the cascading implications. And that alone is a good thing.
Cleo Paskal is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Special Correspondent for The Sunday Guardian.