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Moment that mattered: The Aukus security pact causes a diplomatic storm

President Biden announces the Aukus pact at the White House on 15th September. France withdraws its ambassadors to Australia and the US two days later

US president Joe Biden announces the Aukus pact at the White House on 15th September 2021. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

This article was published in Delayed Gratification in September 2021

Célia Belin was at the French Embassy in Washington DC when the diplomatic bombshell dropped. “I happened to be there for meetings and the press attaché came in and said, ‘Something big just happened with the submarine deal with Australia’,” recalls Belin, a visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution think-tank in the US capital. “He said, ‘It’s going to be big news’”. It was.

French-American relations had just been plunged into an unanticipated crisis. On 15th September a three-way defence partnership, known as Aukus, was announced in a joint virtual press conference by US president Joe Biden, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison and his British counterpart Boris Johnson. The deal is widely seen as an effort to counter the influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea, where Beijing has competing territorial claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The Aukus countries are nervous about the strengthening of China’s army – Chinese military spending increased by 76 percent between 2011 and 2020, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – as well as Beijing’s increasingly belligerent stance towards Taiwan, which it claims as its own. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called the Aukus deal “extremely irresponsible”, saying it represented an “obsolete zero-sum cold war mentality”.

A key part of the new agreement would see Australia build a new class of nuclear-propelled submarines with the help of the UK and the US. This meant, however, that Australia would be ripping up a multi-billion-dollar submarine contract it had agreed with France, which responded to the news with fury. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who is usually “discreet and level-headed” according to Belin, said his country had been “stabbed in the back” by Australia, and that the Biden administration had made a decision that “recalled what Mr Trump would do” – quite the insult for a US president who has done everything he can to distance himself from his predecessor in the White House.

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) welcomes US President Joe Biden (L) before their meeting at the French Embassy to the Vatican in Rome on October 29, 2021

Emmanuel Macron greets Joe Biden before their meeting at the French embassy to the Vatican in Rome on 29th October 2021. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Belin, who spent more than five years as an advisor on US relations at the French foreign ministry, thinks her compatriots had every right to be angry. “Knowing that your partners were negotiating behind your back… it’s a betrayal of trust,” she says. “At the minimum there should have been an advance warning [from the three countries] of a few days that could have prepared the French authorities for the ridicule they would face. It was a form of humiliation.” For French president Emmanuel Macron, the fact that it came just six months before a presidential election only heightened the sense of indignation.

In the weeks after the announcement, a war of words broke out between Morrison and Macron over whether or not Canberra gave Paris advance warning that the countries’ US$37 billion deal, agreed in 2016, to build 12 submarines would be scrapped. Australia claimed that France had missed its phone calls. France claimed that Australian military officials told them they were “extremely satisfied” with the 2016 deal hours before the Aukus announcement. After Macron told reporters that he “knew” Morrison to be a liar, the Australian leader’s office leaked a private text message from the French president which hinted at the possibility that he understood the deal was on the rocks. The French ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thébault, lambasted Morrison’s behaviour as “a new low”.

Belin is sure that the French were genuinely surprised by Aukus. “This was not political theatre,” she says. “They really were blindsided, and although Australians keep saying ‘we gave you hints’ I saw a level of surprise [among French officials] that I believe to be completely sincere.”

It felt like a real betrayal. Biden’s meant to be less unilateral, less brutal than Trump and then he proves to be the same”

On 17th September, France recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the US, a move Belin describes as an “appropriate symbolic demonstration of anger”. Why didn’t it withdraw its ambassador to the UK, the third party in the backstabbing? “That was a deliberate slap in the face,” Belin replies, citing Le Drian’s explanation that the UK was the “fifth wheel on the carriage”, and that everyone knows about its “permanent opportunism” anyway. Not recalling the British ambassador was intended to belittle the UK’s importance. “It was dismissive and hurtful, and it was meant to be that way,” says Belin.

Aukus marked a new low in Anglo-French relations, which Belin says had already been “deeply weakened by Brexit”. She says that her diplomat friends also expect that it will “take years to rebuild the France-Australia relationship.” Paris has since rebuffed Australian efforts to set up ‘peace talks’.

The US, however, is a different story. “This is the one that really hurt,” says Belin. “It felt like a real betrayal and that’s because it’s Biden. He’s meant to be less unilateral, less brutal than Trump and then he proves to be the same.” Unlike Australia, however, the US has succeeded in patching things up. Biden apologised to Macron for the “clumsy” handling of the deal, and vice-president Kamala Harris flew to Paris to help smooth things over. Then, on 20th September, the White House announced that vaccinated passengers from most of Europe would be able to enter the US from November. “It’s no coincidence that they lifted the travel ban five days after Aukus,” says Belin. “It felt like Biden saying [to his team], ‘Why are the French still angry with us? Find me a quick win on the transatlantic front’.”

For some observers in the US, the UK and Australia, the French simply weren’t facing up to an uncomfortable reality – that the country had been ditched by Australia because Canberra would rather have a superpower as a partner than a middle-sized power. “Sure,” Belin replies. “But France has been a middle power for decades now, and there was no illusion in 2016 [when it signed the Australian deal] that it was a superpower. At the time Australia wanted to be less entangled with American strategic culture and decision making. Five years later, they’ve had so much pressure coming from China, a change of leader, a change of strategic views in the region and they’ve changed their calculation. That’s fully valid. One mistake France made was criticising Australia for its strategic decision, saying, ‘It’s a mistake siding with the US, you’re losing your sovereignty’. That was the anger talking.”

An expression used a lot in France after the Aukus announcement was ‘Anglo-Saxons’, known as the ‘Anglosphere’ elsewhere; an idea – or maybe a fantasy – popular in some quarters, that common values come from a shared language, and that fellow English-speaking countries make for the best partners. “It may be an oversimplified way of seeing things but in France the immediate reaction of everybody was, ‘the Anglo-Saxons are sticking together again’,” says Belin. “There is a sense of frustration that however much we work together at the end of the day the Americans, British, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders will always prefer each other to anybody else. Look at [security alliance comprising the five anglophone nations] Five Eyes, for example. For many years there was Five Eyes+1, with France the additional one on top. But it could never be Six Eyes, right?”

Belin says that Aukus also tapped into a “perennial question in French politics – can we trust the Americans?” Some of Macron’s opponents in next year’s election – particularly those on the far right who embraced the opportunity to blame the country’s humiliation on a supposedly weak leader – used the Aukus fallout to suggest France should pivot away from the untrustworthy Americans and towards Russia. Another possible Aukus repercussion, Belin says, is that France’s future participation in Nato, an institution Macron famously described as “brain-dead”, is once again uncertain.

The profound implications of the Aukus deal have changed the geopolitical landscape, and Belin says that there is a big question mark for France over whether it’s reaching the end of what she describes a “golden era” of French-American relations, especially in terms of military cooperation. But at least the countries are no longer at loggerheads. On 29th October, the US and France issued a joint statement which “reaffirmed their commitment to closer bilateral and transatlantic cooperation”, and emphasised the “importance of robust collaboration in the Indo-Pacific” region.

It was exactly what France had wanted. The country’s success at reconciliation with the US “maximised what they could get out of the Americans” and was “masterful diplomatic work”, says Belin. “Given a very bad situation it played its hand very well.”

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