It was the worst possible day for the EU – and its defense heavyweight France – to learn that they are not in the big geostrategic court when it comes to countering China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific region.
Just hours before EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell unveiled the Indo-Pacific strategy On Thursday it was dominated by America, Great Britain and Australia. The three countries announced a landmark pact that would allow cooperation on advanced military technology and allow Canberra to build nuclear-powered submarines.
It was doubly infuriating to the EU camp that Britain on Brexit was the only European ally invited to the head table.
This change of power in Asia-Pacific is a particularly hard blow for France, which now appears to be losing on a multibillion-dollar submarine supply deal with Australia. It is the worst transatlantic explosion since the Iraq war in 2003, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: “It is a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, and that trust has been betrayed. “
Unsurprisingly, France immediately redoubled its calls for Europe to embark on a path of “strategic autonomy” by relying less on American technology and the American army.
The promise of trilateral US-UK-Australia cooperation on anti-China technologies such as artificial intelligence will also sting in Brussels. Later this month, the EU and the US are due to meet in Pittsburgh to discuss precisely one topic: aligning technology standards.
The main problem is that America has shown increasing signs of frustration with the EU’s softer approach to China. Regardless of the mistrust of new US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron ran to finalize a landmark investment deal with China at the end of last year. While US diplomats want the Pittsburgh talks to focus on creating tech ecosystems that exclude China, EU officials are working to downplay any anti-Beijing dimensions of tech cooperation.
Yet France will almost certainly be the immediate diplomatic flashpoint. Paris questions the new three-way alliance (AUKUS) with regard to the contractual rights of its own diesel-electric submarine agreement. “It’s not over yet,” said Le Drian. “We’re going to need some clarification. We have contracts.”
In a joint statement with his defense counterpart, Florence Parly, Le Drian directed his anger directly at Washington.
“The American decision, which leads to exclude a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether on our values ââor respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of coherence that France can only observe and regret, “said the two ministers.
Is France an Indo-Pacific actor?
For France, which was the first EU country to adopt an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018 and then convinced Germany, and the EU as a whole, to follow suit, the latest developments could well lead to rethinking its strategic positioning.
“It’s a blow to Macron and France’s position as a major partner in the Indo-Pacific,” said HervÃ© Lemahieu, research director at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.
Benjamin Haddad, who heads the Europe Center of the Atlantic Council think tank, said: âIt’s really amazing, and [there] will be an earthquake in Paris. … [It] will leave long-term damage to the French defense and political establishment – more than a “normal” diplomatic row.
An EU-based diplomat, however, said the European fallout would mostly be confined to France and the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy went well beyond military dimensions. âGermany, for example, tried to talk about trade diversification [away from China] as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, “he said.
In fact, as a sign of continued regional goodwill, Germany announced on Thursday a new stopover in Darwin, northern Australia, for its frigate Bayern which is now en route to the South China Sea.
“It is a reality check of the geopolitical ambitions of the EU,” said another diplomat. While on the one hand, there is a bad view that the EU and its member countries “fail to be seen as a credible security partner” for the United States and Australia, “we should not. not overdoing the Indo-Pacific strategy: the EU is not a Pacific actor. “
As France recalibrates its relations with Australia, Japan offers a useful diplomatic lesson. Even though it was turned down on a defense contract with the Australians – and the deal ultimately went to the French – Tokyo has managed to maintain strong ties with Canberra to face the common Chinese rival in the region.
âJapan and Australia have overcome these periods of tension and mistrust,â Lemahieu said. He added that India, with which France also has good security relations, could play a constructive role in ensuring that the EU is not totally frozen.
Borrell also insisted on Thursday that there was no question of Europe being excluded as a regional actor. “The EU is already the largest investor, the main provider of development cooperation and one of the biggest trading partners in the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
It’s not as if Biden isn’t already trying to put out the fires in Europe given the hasty and chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan.
The president’s foreign policy team was overworked to contain the fallout from the departure, which tarnished America’s reputation in the world, but especially among European allies who dutifully supported the withdrawal decision.
In recent days, in an effort to consolidate alliances, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan phoned Romanian Foreign Minister and National Security Advisor Bogdan Aurescu, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Å imonytÄ and Hiski Haukkala, Secretary General and Chief of Staff to Finnish President Sauli. NiinistÃ¶.
Back in Brussels, the show must continue.
Faced with a barrage of questions about the new Indo-Pacific alliance – which technically has nothing to do with the EU – Borrell made no secret of his “regret” about the US decision.
Yet Borrell was also keen not to let the French reaction dominate the EU’s new geopolitical interest.
He warned of “dramatized” feelings and pledged his full support for EU cooperation with “the Quad” – the anti-China security alliance of the US, Australia, Japan and India.
And he implored his audience: “Do not question our relationship with the United States which has improved a lot with the new administration.”
For now, however, it’s a plea that has yet to land in Paris.