The announcement of a new military pact for the containment of China in the Pacific region, made on Wednesday evening by the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, has provoked very critical reactions not only from China – as was to be expected – but above all by some allies. France, in particular, called the exclusion from the military pact as a betrayal of trust and “a stab in the back,” and compared Biden’s decision to the reckless foreign policy decisions of his predecessor, Donald Trump: as they noted different media, it was not since the American intervention in Iraq in 2003 that such harsh rhetoric was used between the two allies.
The immediate reason for the disappointment of France is above all economic: the military pact just announced (which is called AUKUS, acronym for Australia, United Kingdom and United States) has as its first and main initiative that of equipping Australia with a fleet of submarines to nuclear propulsion, to allow it to operate in the Indo-Pacific region, a large and strategic area that extends from the eastern coasts of Africa to the Pacific islands. It is a sophisticated and strategically relevant technology, which is currently owned by only six countries in the world.
The problem is that, now that it is launching a nuclear submarine construction program, Australia has unilaterally terminated a traditional submarine supply contract with France, worth 66 billion dollars (about 56 billion euros).
For France, a certain diplomatic humiliation is added to the economic damage: as the New York Times, the United States would have communicated to the French government that it intended to equip Australia with nuclear submarines (and therefore that the French contract would be canceled) only a few hours before the public announcement.
Emmanuel Macron (second from left) and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (fourth from left) on a submarine, during a visit by the French president to Australia in 2018 (Brendan Esposito – Pool / Getty Images)
Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to Washington and one of France’s best-known diplomats, said he learned of the AUKUS military pact from the media. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, would only call him after the news had gone public.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defense Minister, reacted very harshly to the announcement: “It’s a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed ». Le Drian was especially angry with the Biden administration, which was the promoter of AUKUS: “This is not done between allies,” he said, adding that Biden’s decision was “one-sided, brutal and unpredictable”. France, said Le Drian, will still try to enforce the contracts signed with Australia.
On Thursday night, the French Embassy in Washington canceled in protest an event held to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Chesapeake, in which France helped the Americans defeat the British fleet during the War of Independence in 1781.
For France, being excluded from the alliance is also a strategic humiliation. French President Emmanuel Macron has been trying for some years to position his country as a military power in the Indo-Pacific region, and the exclusion from AUKUS has been interpreted as proof that the United States does not see it as such. As he wrote Politico Europeindeed, the United States is rather exasperated by the fact that its European allies (especially France and Germany) are systematically trying to moderate and water down China’s containment initiatives, for fear of damaging trade relations.
In recent years, Macron had also promoted the development of a community strategy in the Indo-Pacific at the European Union level, and had convinced the other member countries that the European Union would have an important role to play in the region.
After lengthy preparation, the European strategy for the Indo-Pacific was unveiled on Thursday: it should have been an important moment for European diplomacy, but of course it was overshadowed by the AUKUS announcement. Josep Borrell, the High Representative for European Foreign Policy who presented the strategy, received questions at the press conference largely focused on the American pact and not on the European initiative.
He too expressed “regret” for the United States’ decision to exclude Europe from the pact, but he also said, with a rather clear reference to France, that the situation should not be “dramatized”.