PacNet #51 – What AUKUS means for European security

The Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security pact is a European—not just French—issue. While the canceled contract with Australia was not about European submarines, and the strategic partnership with Australia was not with the European Union, EU leaders and heads of European states did more than sympathize with the French. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borellstated that EU member states consider AUKUS as “affecting the European Union as a whole.” Michael Roth, the German Secretary of State for European affairs, called it a “wake-up call for everyone in the EU” and German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass states the manner in which it was established was “irritating and disappointing, not only for France.”

Why are Europeans worried?

First, the way AUKUS was negotiated and announced led to a crisis of confidence across the Atlantic because it suggests that Europe is no longer the US priority. For Europeans the problem is less the loss of a contract than the way France was treated. If this is how the United States acts with France, which has the strongest military in the European Union and its second-largest economy, what would keep Washington from doing the same with any other European country? Furthermore, if AUKUS confirms that the Indo-Pacific is now the priority for the United States, it implies Europe is no longer the strategic partner it once was. Not only did it sideline France—which is at the forefront of Europe’s growing Indo-Pacific engagement—but it also did so on the very day the European Union released its own Indo-Pacific strategy.

Second, AUKUS directly impacts the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific, where the European Union has strategic interests and its own approach, as developed in its strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS might complicate Europe’s deepening cooperation with Australia, and European countries could be tempted to limit engagement with the Indo-Pacific more generally. The timing is especially poor now: New Caledonia’s independence referendum is set for December and China favors independence to extend its influence in the South Pacific (a New Caledonia under Chinese influence could break the encirclement of China by isolating Australia, as demonstrated by Paul Charon and Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer).

One reason for the crisis might be the absence of political appointees in the Biden administration—no ambassadors in Europe, and Karen Donfried was only confirmed as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in late September—while the White House Indo-Pacific team is much more robust. The first tour of the secretaries of state and defense was in that region, the DoD’s priority is China, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) in the Indo-Pacific has been revived. Even Biden’s tour in Europe in June was remarkable in the way the communiqués of the G7, NATO, and EU-US Summit all mentioned China, paving the way for more awareness in Europe over this challenge.

Furthermore, Ukraine (a European, though not an EU, state) claimed to be “surprised” when the United States decided to permit the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was not a collective decision; the G7, EU, UN, and NATO secretary general called on the Americans to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to end evacuations, but the US response did not meet their expectations. Finally, the lifting of the travel ban (expected in November) was not announced until Sept. 20, despite high vaccination rates in Europe (while other countries with lower vaccination rates have not been subject to such a ban).

AUKUS is the last straw. It is a wake-up call for Europeans, a clear sign that they must do more to safeguard their strategic interests. The US commitment to Article 5 remains iron-clad, but Europeans might wonder what the US stance would be if a crisis emerged in Europe’s neighborhood, especially one that impacts Europe but not the United States. If the United States were to leave Iraq, what would the Europeans do, as the American armed forces ensure force protection? It is not surprising, then that there are debates over strategic autonomy.

What is the way forward?

First, Europe does not have a shared strategic vision. To form one will require some collective imagination: as Carnegie Europe’s Judy Dempsey put it, “strategic autonomy is meaningless” if Europe does not “collectively suppose strategically.” The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was a significant step in enhancing a shared vision, and it will inform the future strategic compass (to be released in March 2022 under the French EU presidency). The European Union should agree on the key challenges ahead, and new EU special envoy to the Indo-Pacific Gabriele Visentin will be essential to foster consensus.

European states differ in their views of China, which the European Union has labelled a “systemic rival,” “economic competitor,” but also a “negotiating partner.” It will not be easy to adopt a new EU strategy on China, but the recent report from the European parliament is a first contribution. It calls for engaging Beijing on matters of global concern—climate, health, and nuclear disarmament—but also defending core European values and interests, including engaging China in a human rights dialogue. It says no comprehensive agreement on investment can be reached while China sanctions European members of parliament and institutions—themselves a response to EU sanctions on individuals believed to be responsible for repression in Xinjiang—and even suggests an EU investment agreement with Taiwan.

Second, Europe must demonstrate that it is ready to be the global actor the European Union wants to be. This comes with a price, financial (increasing investments in defense spending or developing critical capabilities) and political. The endorsement of the EU strategy on the Indo-Pacific by the heads of states in October is significant in this regard. Implementing the strategy, including its security item (increasing naval deployments and port calls, for instance) will demonstrate to regional actors and the United States that Europe is a key Indo-Pacific actor, offering a unique approach it can implement.

Third, the European Union must engage in an open-eyed discussion with the United States on European security (not limited to European territory). Organizing the focused dialogue on security and defense (with an agenda item on the Indo-Pacific) as promised during the EU-US summit last June would be a welcome initiative. High-level consultations on the Indo-Pacific later this year, which were announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and HRVP Borell, would also give the United States an opportunity to encourage Europeans to step up. NATO will remain the cornerstone of European collective defense, but the United States has much to gain from a more credible, stronger European defense, as acknowledged by Biden in the joint communiqué with French President Emmanuel Macron. Significantly, the communique states that the United States “recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.”

Fourth, regaining trust with Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States is vital for further cooperation. How it happens will be critical. Opening avenues for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, between the European Union and the Quad (as considered in the EU strategy) would be a positive step. The fruitful meeting on Oct. 29 paves the way for France and the United States to restore this trust. This positive dynamic is yet to be found with Australia and the United Kingdom.

AUKUS will have lasting effects on European security. It revealed how much the strategic environment had changed and how the European Union’s critical security partners intend to play in it. Europeans must step up, not only to secure its own strategic interests, but also to participate in renewing a more balanced and more effective transatlantic relationship, including in the Indo-Pacific.

Marie Jourdain (MJourdain@AtlanticCouncil.org) is a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. She worked for the Ministry of Defense’s Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy in Paris.

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PacNet #41 – After the Shock: France, America, and the Indo-Pacific

An earlier version of this article was published for L’Institut Montaigne. It has been edited and translated from French.

It felt like an earthquake. This isn’t too strong a word to describe the French feeling last week, when the rumor began spreading that the United States and Australia were about to announce a new strategic partnership to replace the cooperation that Paris and Canberra had worked hard to build over the past 10 years.

The French submarine contract was in trouble, but no one seemed to know that the United States had been cooking up an alternative option with the Australian government, and that negotiations had begun months ago. There is no hint of that in the Joint Communiqué issued by Paris and Canberra on the occasion of the first foreign affairs-defense ministerial meeting, which took place Aug. 30 and celebrated the strength of France-Australia cooperation. US strategists like to talk about the “shock and awe” strategy. Typically, though, this is to bomb an adversary.

To be sure, the announcement of the new trilateral Indo-Pacific security partnership is the result of both well-calculated strategic considerations, and US and UK political expediency. Beneath the crude new acronym “AUKUS” (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) lies a desire to up the ante in military and technological cooperation between the three countries to counter Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

A Strong Signal from the Anglosphere

AUKUS signals the rise of the Anglosphere, which in France is often, and wrongly, referred to as “Anglo-Saxon.” Its centrality is well-known, particularly in the discreet framework of intelligence exchanges within the Five Eyes Club (with Canada and New Zealand). AUKUS hurts the French, but there is a logic to it and it makes sense for a senior US official to claim that the United States has “no better allies than the United Kingdom and Australia.” Just a few days ago, Canberra, Wellington, and Washington commemorated the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) treaty with great enthusiasm. As for London, its participation in AUKUS is in line with its new post-Brexit Global Britain strategy.

Make no mistake, however: There will be a price to pay. How can France now take seriously the Biden administration’s desire for greater European involvement in the Indo-Pacific, and for more consultation and coordination among allies over China? French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defense Minister Florence Parly are right to talk about a “lack of consistency.” Note that the US announcement was made on the same day that the European Union published its strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Talk about good timing!

For France, the shock is similar to the one it felt after the US abandonment of August 2013, when President Obama reversed its decision to conduct a strike on Syria. The United States may have felt the same 10 years earlier, when in 2003 Paris decided not to support Washington at the United Nations Security Council over its planned intervention in Iraq.

Context matters. The AUKUS announcement comes only weeks after another crisis of confidence, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which proceeded with poor coordination with allies. French President Emmanuel Macron now feels vindicated, having argued for months that NATO is in a critical state. The traditional French narrative about America’s unreliability, then, is validated. In any case, these are Paris’ lines. Per Le Drian and Parly, Thursday’s event “only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy.” This is the French mindset as Paris is getting ready to assume the presidency of the European Union.

A Crushing Blow for France-Australia Cooperation

The “contract of the century” for 12 Shortfin Barracuda submarines—an adaptation to Australian needs of the French Barracuda—was worth 35 billion euros ($41 billion), of which 8 to 9 billion would have gone to the Naval Group (whose largest shareholder is the government, at 60%). The contract, signed in 2016, was already well underway and several hundred people were working on it, including many Australians in Cherbourg.

Implementation was difficult, but no one in France thought that Washington would offer Canberra an alternative, first because the major US defense contractor Lockheed Martin was involved and second because the United States does not traditionally sell nuclear-powered submarines.

Yet the American offer goes beyond this. Not only does the offer include submarines, but these submarines will also be armed with Tomahawk missiles, and the deal will proceed within the framework of a major trilateral cooperation on defense and security technologies. It is an attractive offer, especially given the regional security environment, which has worsened since the early 2010s. That’s why, for example, the Labor Party can now accept nuclear propulsion technology, which provides a real military advantage both in terms of durability and patrol discretion.

For France, the submarine contract was part of a broader logic: It was about building a long-term strategic relationship, a marriage for 50 years, as the French used to call it. Many had worked hard to lay the groundwork for this, including through informal dialogue between government officials and experts.

This union, however, was cancelled before it was consummated, hence the harsh official reaction, describing Canberra’s decision as being “contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia.” This relationship was meant to be one of the pillars of France’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which was walking on two legs, one Australian, and the other Indian (notably via the Rafale contract). The only advantage for Paris now is that its strategy for the region will be no longer be perceived as simply following the United States’ lead (which was never the case).

Nonproliferation Undermined

Nuclear propulsion has advantages, but it is a sensitive technology. That’s why, until now, no nuclear-armed state has sold it to a non-nuclear-armed state. Only six countries possess such technology, the five nuclear-armed states “recognized” by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), plus India. France has never sold such technology, despite requests (from Brazil, for instance) and significantly, back in the early 2010s, Australia did not ask for it. The United States has now broken this taboo. Imagine Washington’s reaction had it been France!

Even with access to this technology, Australia will likely not able to reproduce it. There will be a “black box,” which will remain closed to Canberra.

There is also no risk of nuclear proliferation. Still, the reactors will probably use highly enriched uranium (HEU), a technology used by the Americans (and the British), unlike the French, who have chosen the more proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium (LEU) option. Moreover, this technology could revive the debate in Australia about the need for a civilian or even dual (civilian and military) nuclear program.

The timing is also bad because of the next review conference of the NPT, scheduled for January 2022. HEU escapes international controls when it is used for propulsion alone; for practical reasons, because it is difficult to imagine foreign inspectors checking the rear part of national submarines. It is therefore possible, in theory, to remove HEU from controlled facilities to officially use it for nuclear propulsion. Iran could do this, for example. Moreover, other states could now sell similar propulsion reactors to non-nuclear-armed states, arguing that there is now a precedent.

The Way Forward

France should look forward. It should quickly settle the trade dispute and separate it from the unavoidable overhaul of its strategy for the Indo-Pacific. France is and will remain an important player in the region. Australia, for its part, will still need its “Pacific neighbor.” More importantly, no one wants China to exploit and sharpen the differences between Western countries. Hence the importance, for example, to continue not only official but also “track 2” (experts) and “track 1.5” (officials and experts) France-Australia conversations.

Over the next 18 months, the three AUKUS countries will have to answer important questions. Will France be allowed to join AUKUS periodically, for some projects or operations? Or will France be forced to seek greater alignment with Germany (in Europe) and Japan (in Asia), ironically its two competitors for the submarine contract with Australia?

France, too, will need to reflect on this experience, which will have major implications for its industrial and strategic interests. Was Paris just too trustful of its allies? Was it naïve? For now, however, Paris should steer clear of drawing hasty conclusions. The Biden administration is not the Trump administration. The latter did not care much for its allies. The former does, though not for all of them.

Bruno Tertrais (b.tertrais@frstrategie.org) is Deputy Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, the leading French think tank on international security issues. He is also a Senior Fellow for Strategic Affairs at the Institut Montaigne.

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PacNet #29 – Ideating an India-France-UK Trilateral for the Indo-Pacific

Multilateral modes of dialogue—in which regional powers lead and stakeholder states actively participate—are increasingly drawing the Indo-Pacific’s political map. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—India, Japan, the United States, and Australia—has gained tremendous importance while trilaterals, like India-Japan-Australia, Japan-US-Australia, and the recently established India-Australia-France dialogue have further expanded the region’s security outlook. As China’s power grows, an increasingly number of states have begun reorienting their strategies toward the Indo-Pacific. France and Germany have formally adopted the “Indo-Pacific” terminology; the Quad’s third ministerial even highlighted Europe’s increasing support.

In this context, India’s growing ties with the United Kingdom and France can potentially build a new trilateral that can shape the maritime future of the Indo-Pacific—politically, economically, and in the security realm.

France hopes to build a “stable, multipolar order” driven by rule of law, free and open movement, and practical multilateralism; it identifies the Indo-Pacific as the “heart” of this strategic vision. France’s €200 million (about $242 million) COVID-response fund for India, promise of armed forces support in the immediate aftermath of the Galwan clash, and speedy delivery of Rafale jets are evidence of New Delhi’s importance to Paris. In line with France’s growing focus on the Indo-Pacific and India—further highlighted by the India-Australia-France trilateral—the time to upgrade their strategic partnership to a “special” or “comprehensive” bilateral has arrived. France-India synergy is quickly gathering momentum and can shape the future of India’s maritime security, especially in the Western Indian Ocean, traditionally a key area of influence for France. Paris’ support of European engagement in the Indo-Pacific—highlighted by its contributions to an increased European Union presence in regional forums such as the strategic partnership with ASEAN—and the priority it gives to improving the regional military power balance makes France a novel choice as a trilateral partner.

Concurrently, amidst a tense post-Brexit geopolitical landscape, deteriorating ties with China, and the financial challenges of COVID-19, London realizes that previous alliances are “all in question.” London’s report Global Britain in a Competitive Age highlights how the United Kingdom wants “deeper engagement” in the Indo-Pacific and recognizes the “importance of [regional] powers” such as India. UK Secretary of State Dominic Raab’s 2020 visit to India saw the two states prioritize creating a decade-long “360 degree roadmap” for upgrading the India-UK partnership. They have also classified UK-India ties as a “global force for good” and upgraded them to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The United Kingdom also invited India to be part of the 2021 G7 meeting during its presidency.

India welcomes the Indo-Pacific-driven shift from both countries. France’s importance to India’s changing China policy has grown, while the United Kingdom is taking on a prominent role in India’s Indo-Pacific outlook. Furthermore, ties between the two European powers themselves have taken on a nuanced shape post-Brexit. While surface hostility translates into sparring on financial matters, both countries recognize the other’s political importance. Economically, both countries have major stakes in the other. In the security realm, they are Europe’s two most significant military powers, have veto power in the UN Security Council (where they have supported India’s bid for permanent membership), and agree on most foreign policy issues (except the European Union). China is a mutual concern, yet all three states share strong economic ties with Beijing that they would like to salvage, especially in the difficult post-pandemic fiscal recovery.

Potential Areas of Growth

India’s Act East Policy has built strong ties between New Delhi and East/Southeast Asian economies that the United Kingdom and France can exploit for trade and economic benefit. Cooperation in renewable energy, climate change, sustainable supply chain creation, counter-terrorism, and anti-piracy operations could mark a natural evolution of the trilateral. France, like India, wants an “inclusive” Indo-Pacific while acting as an “inclusive and stabilizing mediating power”; the United Kingdom’s “commitment to a multi-polar world” ties well with this overture.

As maritime democracies, a UK-France-India trilateral can build on the common goal of developing the blue economy, while improving ties with littoral states in the Indo-Pacific. The United Kingdom’s “Commonwealth Blue Charter”—of which India, as a commonwealth nation, is a party—highlights Britain’s goals for “sustainable ocean development” and can build commonwealth-driven multilateral synergy. Owing to its overseas territories, France possesses the second-largest marine zone in the world, rendering oceanic resources pivotal to its overall economy. India has begun drafting an official Blue Economy Policy post identifying the potential for maritime resources to be the “next multiplier of GDP.”

The blue economy can also link with the Japan-India-Australia-led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative. Including the United Kingdom and France in this initiative could help expand it into Europe, finding synergy on vaccine cold chains, trade routes, maritime resource-sharing, and linking island states, creating a cross-continental connection between Europe and Asia. Furthermore, with India and Australia as member states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and France, the United States, and Japan as dialogue partners, greater synergy could help promote deeper engagement with small-island nations, especially with Western/African Indian Ocean nations.

The trilateral will also provide immense scope for third-country cooperation—the 2019 meeting between leaders of France, India, and the Vanilla Islands on a French overseas territory marked such cooperation between France and India in the Western Indian Ocean. UK inclusion in such third-country cooperation—via the British Indian Ocean Territory—can strengthen India’s ties in the Indian Ocean, where China’s influence is rapidly growing. Given the United Kingdom, France, and India’s strong ties with Japan—and their interest in countering China’s political and economic clout in Africa—the trilateral could also link with the “Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa” to boost connectivity in the Indo-Pacific domain. Importantly, politicization of the India-France International Solar Alliance (ISA) could build a bilateral vaccine partnership by providing solar-powered logistics, also simultaneously fulfilling the Quad’s vaccine partnership goals. The United Kingdom joined the ISA in 2018; cooperation via the organization with African and Asian economies in creating sustainable energy with infrastructural aid from the West can make the ISA a major foreign policy tool for taking on China’s Belt and Road Initiative via a “One Sun One World One Grid.”

Cooperation in the defense and security sector must also be actively advocated. The United Kingdom is one of the world’s most successful defense exporters; however, production has become more expensive. Meanwhile, a thriving defense export sector is crucial for Paris’s post-COVID economic recovery. As India begins its “pointed-alignment” strategy, recognizing India as a “base for production of defense equipment” could build a structured defense partnership for the trilateral.

Existing bilateral maritime security collaboration between the three states can further grow into one of the most significant avenues of cooperation. The Indo-French bilateral military exercise Varuna began in 1993; recently, the two increased interoperability capacity via Samudra Setu and Resilience operations. India and the United Kingdom have established maritime exercises such as the “Konkan Exercise” and army exercises like “Ajeya Warrior.” The United Kingdom’s deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific region later in 2021 for maritime exercises with Japan provides scope for India to engage in a maritime trilateral with them; France’s inclusion can also be espoused. Beyond joint trilateral maritime exercises, the United Kingdom and France could also join with the Quad in Malabar, similar to the Quad’s recent inclusion in the French La Perouse exercise.

A trilateral with India—especially given Paris and London’s bilateral attempts at improving relations with New Delhi—can enhance cooperation and address shared interests. It will give the United Kingdom a link to the European Union via France in Indo-Pacific security outreach and aid India in promoting Europe’s deeper integration as a security and political player in the region. Its ideation as the Indo-Pacific’s next vital trilateral must receive urgent strategic focus.

Eerishika Pankaj (eerishikap@gmail.com) is an Editorial Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Series on Think Asia. Ms. Pankaj was also selected as a Young Leader in the 2020 cohort of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program and is also a Commissioning Editor with E-International Relations for their Political Economy section. She can be reached @eerishika on Twitter.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.