Australia has reached deep into its historical roots to reconcile the paradox of an unchanging and constant geography with a geostrategic environment in rapid flux.
On Sept. 15, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. announced the conclusion of a security deal awkwardly named AUKUS, an acronym made from the three nations that comprise the trilateral security agreement. There is the further awkwardness of leaders of three countries from the Anglo-Saxon world telling Asian nations they intend to be in charge of Asia’s destiny.
AUKUS commits the U.K. and U.S. to unprecedented technology transfer and material assistance to help Australia acquire a fleet of eight nuclear-propelled submarines. Compared to diesel submarines, these have greater range, uninterrupted underwater time at sea, stealth and punch with state-of-the-art missiles, cyber and AI technology. The lifetime running ability of the nuclear cores and no requirement to build a domestic civilian nuclear industry also proved decisive.
But the decision to cancel the 90.7 billion Australian dollar deal to buy a dozen French diesel submarines has roiled relations with France and introduced fresh tensions into relations with China.
Around 2010, China abandoned its low-profile and light footprint approach to regional diplomacy. Its words and actions have grown louder and more provocative in the decade since. The explanation for this may lie in its historical identity as a continental power, the Middle Kingdom to which surrounding states paid tribute.
China has no tradition of operating either as a maritime power or in a system of coequal great powers. President Xi Jinping has institutionalized “wolf warrior” diplomacy, militarized the South China Sea and become increasingly assertive in disputes with neighboring and offshore countries. Beijing seems to believe it can browbeat and intimidate the likes of Japan, India and Australia into kowtowing to its demands. Its international reputation has also suffered with obfuscations and refusals to cooperate with genuinely independent investigations into the origins of COVID-19.
Australia has felt the sting of China’s displeasure across a broad front in recent years, angered by Australia’s early call for an investigation into the virus origins, expressions of concerns over the human rights situation in China, the crackdown in Hong Kong and the treatment of Uyghurs.
Beijing badly misread Australian national character, miscalculated Canberra’s resolve to stand up to bullying and underestimated its capacity to reset the regional security architecture. For decades, Australian leaders have rejected calls to choose between European history and Asian geography and between the U.S. as the principal security ally and China as the dominant trading partner. China’s punitive actions against Australian barley, coal, seafood and wine exports have driven Australia back under the security blanket of the comforting Anglo-American embrace.
In a strongly worded response, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said AUKUS “greatly undermines regional peace and stability, aggravates (an) arms race, and hurts the international nonproliferation efforts.” He called on the three to “abandon the Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concept.” In language with echoes of Maoist China, the Global Times said by participating in “the U.S.-led strategic siege of China,” Australia has shown it “is still a running dog of the U.S.”
China’s current submarines are technologically noisier and inferior. However, it has proven ability to fast-track defense acquisitions and 15 to 20 years is lead time aplenty for Beijing to embark on a major naval modernization upgrade as a riposte to AUKUS.
Thus AUKUS is in part a counterproductive consequence of military, economic and diplomatic coercion of Australia by China. Have the Anglo-Saxon allies made as consequential a miscalculation about France?
The original 2016 submarine deal with France has been criticized in Australia from the start by many, often and vociferously. Already suspect when signed, the deal made less and less strategic and financial sense with each passing year. The main thrust of the criticism has been about the folly and costs of asking a company that makes nuclear-propelled vessels to retrofit it with diesel engines. It’s like commissioning a company to redesign jet engines to power propeller-driven planes instead, and pay extra to boot for the downgrade. The decision to switch to nuclear is thus easily defended on strategic, economic and technological merits.
But the manner in which the deal was made, the shabby treatment and public humiliation of France is an insult to their amour propre and an affront to their dignity. The trilateral deal was sealed in principle at the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England, in June, where President Emmanuel Macron of course was in attendance.
No one takes insult to national honor as exquisitely as France and no one does “pique” as well — which is why, of course, there is no better word for it in English. When did France last recall ambassadors from either Australia or the U.S., let alone both — and also canceled a defense summit with the U.K.?
A French diplomat complained: “Just like Afghanistan, this new ‘America First’ opus is poorly conceived and even more poorly executed.” In decidedly strong undiplomatic language, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused the three of “lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt.” Was all this really unavoidable and have the three allies accurately assessed the long-term resulting damage, not just the short-term hurt feelings?
France is the third NATO nuclear-armed power after the U.S. and the U.K., continental Europe’s sole nuclear-armed state and the only European nuclear power operating in the Pacific with territorial interests in the region. The recalled French ambassador to the U.S., Philippe Etienne, said the canceled contract was “much more” than a business deal. In addition, he said it was “an essential part of our Indo-Pacific strategy and engagement.”
The anger and resentment is understandable. France has already spent six years trying to turn its nuclear Barracuda-class design into a diesel-powered version for Australia because Canberra said it didn’t do nuclear. To have conducted discussions and concluded negotiations clandestinely by freezing out France does convey intrigue and a profound betrayal of trust. It risks undermining the united front with Europe that the U.S. was engaged in creating against China’s growing challenge.
France is also calling on the European Union to scuttle the 3-year old discussions on a free-trade agreement with Australia because of an Anglosphere betrayal of an EU member. The AUKUS allies will need to invest considerable diplomatic capital in efforts to assuage hurt sentiments and compensate damaged interests, or risk the downside consequences of national grievance institutionalized in French national memory for many years.
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.
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