PARIS – President Biden’s announcement of an agreement to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines has strained the Western alliance, infuriating France and foreshadowing how the confrontational US and European responses to the confrontation with China could redraw the world strategic map.
Announcing the deal on Wednesday, Biden said it aims to strengthen alliances and update them as strategic priorities change. But by bringing a Pacific ally closer to the Chinese challenge, it appears to have alienated an important European ally and worsened already strained relations with Beijing.
France reacted with outrage on Thursday to announcements that the United States and Britain would help Australia develop submarines and that Australia was pulling out of a $ 66 billion deal to buy pennies. -ships of French construction. Basically, the diplomatic storm is also a business affair – a loss of revenue for the French military industry and a gain for American companies.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Foreign Minister, told Franceinfo radio that the submarine deal was a “unilateral, brutal and unpredictable decision” by the United States, and he compared the American decision to reckless and sudden policy changes common under the Trump administration. .
Underlining its fury, France canceled a gala scheduled for Friday at its embassy in Washington to mark the 240th anniversary of a battle in the War of Independence.
“It looks like a new geopolitical order without binding alliances,” said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris. “To face China, the United States seems to have chosen a different alliance, with the Anglo-Saxon world separated from France. She predicted a “very hard” period in the old friendship between Paris and Washington.
The deal also appeared to be a pivotal point in relations with China, which reacted angrily. The Biden administration appears to be upping the stakes with Beijing by supplying a Pacific ally with submarines that are much harder to detect than conventional submarines, just as Pershing II medium-range missiles have been deployed in Europe over the years. 1980 to deter the Soviet Union.
A statement by Mr. Le Drian and Florence Parly, French Minister of the Armed Forces, described “the American choice to exclude an ally and a European partner like France” as a regrettable decision which “shows a lack of coherence” .
Australian ships would have nuclear reactors for propulsion, but no nuclear weapons.
France and the rest of the European Union are determined to avoid a direct confrontation with China, as they stressed on Thursday in a policy paper titled “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific “, which was scheduled for publication before the crash.
He said the bloc would pursue “multifaceted engagement with China,” cooperating on issues of common concern while “pushing aside cases of fundamental disagreement with China, such as over human rights.”
The degree of French anger was reminiscent of the acrimonious disagreement in 2003 between Paris and Washington over the Iraq war and involved language not heard since.
“This is not done between allies,” said Le Drian. His comparison of Mr. Biden to Mr. Trump seemed certain to be viewed in the White House as a grave insult.
And France said it had not been consulted on the deal. “We heard about it yesterday,” Ms. Parly told RFI radio.
The Biden administration said it had not informed French leaders beforehand as it was clear they would be unhappy with the deal.
The administration has decided that it is up to Australia to choose whether or not to inform Paris, said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the matter publicly. But he admitted that the French had a right to be unhappy, and that the decision was likely to fuel France’s desire for a European Union military capability independent of the United States.
Administration officials described the president’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance as steadfast, and Mr Biden said on Wednesday the deal was “to invest in our source of strength, our alliances and update them. “.
At least as far as France, one of the United States’ oldest allies, is concerned, that claim seems to have backfired. France struck its own deal in 2016 to supply Australia with conventional submarines, and a legal battle over its collapse seems inevitable.
“A knife in the back,” Le Drian said of the Australian move, noting that Australia rejected a strategic partnership agreement involving “a lot of technology transfers and a 50-year contract.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not even mention France during the video conference with Mr Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in which the deal was announced.
Britain’s partnership with the United States in the deal is another irritant for France, following Britain’s exit from the European Union and Mr Johnson’s adoption of a “Great Britain” strategy. global ”targeting mainly the Indo-Pacific region. Long-standing French suspicion of an English-speaking cabal pursuing its own interests to the exclusion of France is never far below the surface.
The deal also challenged French President Emmanuel Macron on some of his central strategic choices. He is determined that France does not allow itself to be drawn into the increasingly harsh confrontation between China and the United States.
On the contrary, Mr. Macron wants France to lead the European Union towards a middle road between the two great powers, demonstrating “European strategic autonomy” at the heart of his vision. He spoke of an autonomous Europe operating “alongside America and China”.
Such comments have been an irritant – if not more than that, given Europe’s military distance from such autonomy – to the Biden administration. Mr. Biden is particularly sensitive to the question of the American sacrifice of the 20th century for France in the two world wars and to the reluctance of France regarding its independence within the NATO alliance. Mr Macron has not been to the White House since Mr Biden took office, and there is no indication that he will do so soon.
The EU declaration on the Indo-Pacific strategy called on European nations to become more involved at all levels in the region.
His formulation, mixing broad “commitment” and dissent on human rights, largely reflected Mr. Macron’s quest for a policy that does not risk breaking with China but also avoids bowing to Beijing. France declared that the strategy confirmed “its very ambitious will to act in this region aimed at preserving the ‘freedom of sovereignty’ for all”.
The document did not foresee that Australia’s nuclear submarines, potentially armed with cruise missiles, would become a powerful player in the Pacific in a way that could shift the balance of naval forces in an area where China is expanding its influence.
Presenting Europe’s strategy, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told Brussels that the submarine deal reinforces the bloc’s need for greater strategic autonomy.
“I guess a deal like this wasn’t done the day before yesterday,” Borrell said. “Despite this, we were not informed.” The US-UK-Australia deal, he argued, was further proof that the bloc must “exist for ourselves, since others exist for themselves.”
Conventional submarines can remain submerged for days or, at most, weeks, while nuclear-powered submarines routinely patrol underwater for months. Their range is limited only by their food supply.
“In terms of maritime battlespace, there is no comparison in terms of capacity no matter how good the diesel boat is, especially given the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean,” the admiral said. James G. Stavridis, Former Supreme Commander of NATO Forces. in Europe. “It will also allow full interoperability with the US Pacific Fleet, the main maritime force in the Pacific. It’s technologically and geopolitically smart on the Australians’ part.
Mr. Biden, with his “America is Back” foreign policy message, had promised to rekindle the country’s alliances, particularly undermined by Mr. Trump’s contempt for NATO and the Union. European. Hopes were high from Madrid to Berlin. But a brief honeymoon quickly gave way to new tensions.
The French were disappointed that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had not made Paris, where he lived for many years, one of his first destinations in Europe. And they were angry when Mr Biden made his decision on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with little to no consultation with European allies who had contributed to the war effort.
“Not even a phone call,” Ms Bacharan said of the Afghan decision.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Biden called France a key ally with a significant presence in the Indo-Pacific. But the president’s decision, at least in the eyes of the French, seemed to make a mockery of this observation.
The French statement said Thursday that France was “the only European nation present in the Indo-Pacific region, with nearly two million citizens and over 7,000 military personnel” in overseas territories such as French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.
Next week, Biden will meet at the White House with the leaders of the “Quad” – an informal partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the United States – in what amounts to a declaration of shared will in relations with Beijing. He will also meet with Mr Johnson, apparently before the Quads rally.
Given the Australia deal, these meetings will again suggest to France that in the China-centric 21st century, mainland Europe’s former allies matter less.
For Britain, joining the security alliance was further proof of Mr Johnson’s determination to closely align his country with the United States in the post-Brexit era. Mr Johnson has sought to present himself as a staunch partner of Mr Biden on issues such as China and climate change.
London’s relations with Washington have been troubled by the Biden administration’s lack of consultation on Afghanistan. But the partnership on the nuclear submarine deal suggests that in sensitive areas of security, intelligence sharing and military technology, Britain remains a privileged partner over France.
Reporting was provided by Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt in Washington; Aurélien Breeden in Paris; Mark Landler in London; and Elian Peltier in Brussels.