The Biden administration’s political follies continue to characterise the US president’s first year in power and occupy the international news headlines.
It has not been long since Biden’s disastrous withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which left the fate of over 38 million people in the hands of one of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups, the Taliban. More recently, Biden has blindsided France, a major NATO ally, by signing a secret arms deal with Australia to supply it with nuclear-powered submarines instead of the contracted 12 non-nuclear submarines in a deal signed with France in 2016.
The French deal was dubbed the “Deal of the Century” by some military analysts and represented one of the cornerstones of the French naval industry’s ability to project its products on a global scale.
However, secret talks between the US, Australia and the UK resulted in a deal announced on 15 September called AUKUS, a new trilateral security pact between these three countries. According to its terms, the US and the UK agree to assist Australia in developing and deploying nuclear-powered submarines.
After the deal was signed, Australia informed France that it would no longer continue its contractual obligations with regard to the French submarines. France then withdrew its ambassadors from the US and Australia in protest.
This was the first act of its kind in the history of relations between the US and France. The latter has historically been among the staunchest supporters of the US and was an ally during the American War of Independence (1775-1783) against the British.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian did not hold back in his reaction to the AUKUS deal, accusing the Americans and Australians of “lies and duplicity.” “When you have an ally of the stature of France, you don’t treat them like that,” he said, also labelling the UK’s role in the deal as “opportunistic.”
The deal represents a precedent for the US, which is selling nuclear-powered equipment to a non-nuclear armed country. It is believed that this act may thwart nuclear non-proliferation efforts despite the assurances by the US and UK that the submarines will not include any nuclear missiles. For some, however, this is just another statement from an administration whose words do not have much credibility.
The Chinese government has perceived the deal as an act of provocation and a breach in non-proliferation efforts in the Pacific, possibly opening the door to other countries in the region acquiring nuclear-powered equipment and eventually nuclear weapons.
Chinese state-owned newspapers such as the Global Times wrote that Australia had turned itself into an “adversary” of China through the deal and warned that Australia would be targeted by China if it acted “with bravado” in its alliance with the US.
The same paper warned Australia that China would “punish” it and its soldiers could be among the first batch of Western soldiers to perish in the South China Sea. While the newspaper does not represent the Chinese government, it has been used to pass on threatening messages by the Chinese government in a language not traditionally used by diplomats.
From a strategic point of view, arming Australia with nuclear-powered submarines may sound logical enough, given the increasing presence of China in the Pacific over the past decade. But China may now do the same for its own allies, including the already nuclear-armed North Korea. Moreover, the act may break any unified front among the Europeans towards Chinese expansionist ambitions in the Pacific, aside, of course, from the UK.
The European Union and members of the NATO countries have expressed their solidarity with France and denounced the AUKUS deal. Most European powers believe that France has been treated unfairly in this affair, and the German foreign minister described it as a “wake-up call” for the bloc, calling for more cooperation in Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his interest in forming a European military pact parallel to NATO some years ago. Though the finances required for such an alliance may not be available at the moment, actions of the sort that the US has carried out in the Pacific may put the idea on the table in the foreseeable future.
One of the dangers of the Australian breach of contract is that NATO will not be able to count on France in facing up to China. This is not just the case on the military level, but may be true on the diplomatic and political levels too, where France and other European powers may be less likely to back any US movement against Russia and China.
The Europeans have seen that the Biden administration will stab them in the back for political or economic gain should the need come for it. The Biden administration’s reckless withdrawal from Afghanistan has already shown that this is an administration that is myopic as far as the political repercussions of its actions are concerned.
France has sent a bill to Australia for breaching the submarines contract, and the penalties range from long-term lawsuits to an economic embargo.
The Biden administration may have gained a lucrative arms contract with Australia, together with the UK, but the fallout from that deal may far outweigh its financial gains and taint French-US relations for many years to come. The same thing is true for other European allies of the US.
Given the path that Biden has been following over the past nine months, his autobiography, should he decide to write one after he finishes his four-year term as US president, could have the title of “how to lose allies and make enemies.”
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly