Biden and the French submarines: Trump without the tweets?

Ahmed Mahdi , Tuesday 19 Oct 2021

The reasons for the crisis over the cancellation of the French submarine deal with Australia are not just about a failed business deal, but go deep into the nature of security alliances and the lack of trust between Paris and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, writes Ahmed Mahdi

French submarines
French submarines


On 16 September, Washington, London, and Canberra announced a groundbreaking security deal. In a joint video press conference hosted by US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the three leaders announced the AUKUS security arrangement between the three states, with AUKUS being the first letters of Australia, the UK, and the US.

 Under AUKUS, the US would provide nuclear-powered technology and know-how to Canberra, allowing Australia to obtain at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. This would help Australia increase its naval power in the Asia-Pacific to protect Western interests in the region.  

This agreement with the US led Canberra to terminate a $43 billion contract with the DCNS/Naval Group, a French submarine-building company mostly owned by the French government. The contract was signed in 2016 between Canberra and Paris to allow Australia to obtain 12 conventional diesel-powered submarines using French technology.  

The American nuclear-powered submarines, on the other hand, would be powered by highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that would be enriched to 93 per cent. Furthermore, these submarines can in theory stay at sea for 30 years without the need for refueling, making them much superior to the French non-nuclear submarines. The US submarines would also allow Australia to conduct longer patrols in the Asia-Pacific and to have a stronger military/marine presence in the region. 

Morrison said that the US technology had not been available when Canberra signed the 2016 contract with France. Australia has spent $1.8 billion on the French project since 2016, and the first of the French-designed submarines was due for delivery in 2027.

Morrison also said that he had told French president Emmanuel Macron in June 2021 that there were “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would satisfy Australia’s strategic needs. “Of course, they [the French] are disappointed,” Morrison said when announcing the AUKUS deal. “They’ve been good partners. This is about our strategic interest, our strategic capability requirements and a changed strategic environment, and we had to take that decision.” 

Morrison added that he expected the first of the nuclear submarines, which are to be constructed in the Australian city of Adelaide, to be built by 2040. He said that Canberra has not decided which class of nuclear submarines it will select and did not know how much the fleet of at least eight submarines would cost. But he said that Australia’s defence budget would increase in the future to cover the costs.

None of the three leaders mentioned China in the joint press conference, but it was obvious that the AUKUS deal was meant to counter Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific region. Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, said that Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear submarines was due to what Canberra saw as the increasing Chinese bullying of Australia and intimidation of Japan and Taiwan. 

“We should call the first submarine in this new category the ‘Xi Jinping’, because no person is more responsible for Australia going down this track than the current leader of the Chinese Communist Party,” Jennings said jokingly.

According to interviews with US and British officials, it was the Australians who first approached the new administration in the White House soon after Biden’s inauguration. It was also the Australians who said they had reached the conclusion that they had to get out of the agreement with France because the French submarines would not be strong enough to protect Australian interests in the Asia-Pacific against any possible Chinese aggression. 

The Australian concerns about the French deal were in response to the changing security environment and what they saw as increasing Chinese militarism. For example, Australia gets its oil from the Middle East. It is shipped to Japan and from Japan to Australia. What if China decides to block this sea route? 

Such fears led the Australians to modify their strategic outlook with regard to the Asia-Pacific region and to reevaluate the French submarine deal. From here came their decision to approach the Americans.  


US VIEWS: Biden was receptive to the Australian concerns, since he has put the rolling back of China’s territorial ambitions in the Asia-Pacific as a central tenet of his national security policy.

Thus, Biden told his aides that the French submarines would not be good enough to resist the Chinese movements, as they did not have the ability to carry out speedy or wide-ranging patrols in the Pacific. After the Australians contacted the Americans over the submarines, the Americans contacted the British and asked them if they wanted to join the new deal. Washington contacted London not Paris, which already had the deal, because the British seemed to have better intelligence and a better understanding of the Australians than the French. 

The British were eager to join with the Americans and Australians. According to John Blaxland, a former military intelligence analyst and professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University (ANU), the British became involved in AUKUS due to post-Brexit global conditions. Johnson looked around and saw that if the UK was to improve its relations with the US, then London should go where Washington went, in other words, the Asia-Pacific region. This was especially the case as Biden seems to be following in the footsteps of former US president Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia policy. 

Furthermore, Blaxland said, post-Brexit Britain wants to bolster its “Global Britain” image and to increase its military and economic links to the Asia-Pacific and sees relations with Australia as a conduit to achieve this goal. It was for such reasons that London got involved in the AUKUS arrangement, he said. 

By all accounts, the Australians did not reveal to the French that they were preparing to cancel the deal, and neither did the Americans. According to US and Australian officials, the French had to be kept in the dark about the secret talks between the Americans and the Australians. This was because Washington and Canberra feared that if Paris knew that one of the biggest defence contracts in the history of the country was about to be cancelled, it would most probably try to sabotage the alternative US deal. 

Therefore, the Americans and Australians decided to keep work on the alternative US deal restricted to a very small group of officials and made no mention of it to the French even during a meeting between Biden and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and their French counterparts in Corbis Bay in Cornwall in the UK in June 2021 on the margins of the G7 Summit. 

Moreover, on 30 August, the French and Australian defence and foreign ministers held a meeting and issued a joint communiqué that said that Paris and Canberra were committed to deepening cooperation in the defence industry and emphasised the importance of the submarine agreement.

The Biden administration finally discussed the issue with the French only a few hours before it was publicly announced in the virtual meeting between Biden, Johnson, and Morrison. The first US official to discuss the details of the new deal with Philippe Étienne, French ambassador to the US, was Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, only a few hours before the public announcement. 

The French reaction was obviously one of anger. Paris recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that this “exceptional decision” had been justified by the situation’s “exceptional gravity”. 

“It was really a stab in the back. We built a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed,” said Le Drian on the France-Info radio station. He added that the American action had showed Biden acting like his unilateralist predecessor Donald J Trump but “without the tweets”. Paris also cancelled a gala reception at the French embassy in Washington to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the French victory over the British Navy in the Battle of the Capes during the American War of Independence. 


FRENCH ANGER: The reasons for the French anger are not just the cancellation of the French submarine deal in favour of the American submarines. 

France is a major arms exporter, and the loss of one submarine deal will not cause a lot of harm to the French arms industry. Furthermore, the deal between the Australians and the French had a clause in it to the effect that the French would receive compensation of millions of dollars if the Australians decided to withdraw from the deal, so the financial losses might not be big enough to cause a great deal of anger on the French side.

The French anger is not just about the commercial losses from cancelling the deal with Canberra. Another important reason for it is that Paris was not included in the AUKUS agreement. The French were left out in favour of the British, even though there were many reasons that qualify France to be included in an arrangement such as AUKUS. 

France has nuclear submarine technology and a historical and military presence in the Asia-Pacific because of its military bases in the region. The French also have the same interests as the Americans, British, and Australians in protecting the Asia-Pacific region from Chinese expansionism. Furthermore, Paris developed its own national security strategy for the Asia-Pacific region in 2018, and France’s partnership with Australia was an important part of this.

Now that Australia has cancelled the submarine deal with France, the French strategy for the Asia-Pacific is facing huge challenges. In addition, France has said that the French submarine engines that were supposed to be used were designed specifically as diesel engines to meet Australian specifications and that Paris could have offered nuclear-powered submarines.

The AUKUS arrangement, from which France was left out, is only one of a series of security arrangements that the US has established in the Asia-Pacific over the years. One such arrangement is the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance between the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Its origins go back to World War II and the early days of the Cold War, and it is said to be an arrangement of the “Anglosphere”, since English is the formal language in all five countries. (Canada and New Zealand were not involved in the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal). 

Another similar security arrangement is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (DSD), or the “Quad”, as it is publicly known. This is a loose security alliance that includes the US, India, Japan, and Australia, and it is intended to manage security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. It was formed in 2007 during the presidency of George W Bush, and it was clearly meant to contain possible Chinese expansionism. On 23 September 2021, Biden hosted the prime ministers of Japan, India, and Australia at the White House under the umbrella of the Quad. This was the second time that the Quad leaders had met that year, the first being an online meeting in March. 

France feels betrayed that it was left out of these security arrangements and that Washington and the other capitals apparently do not trust Paris to join them. Perhaps this is because of France’s commitments to the European Union, especially since the EU developed its own national security strategy for the Asia-Pacific region at almost the same time AUKUS was announced in mid-September. Perhaps Washington fears that the EU’s strategic and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific might run counter to its own. 

France was not the only state that condemned the AUKUS agreement. China also saw that it was the target of the new alliance. Beijing said that it was “highly irresponsible” of Washington to share nuclear technology with Canberra and blamed Australia for any decline in bilateral relations between Beijing and Canberra. 

“The most urgent task is for Australia to correctly recognise the reasons for the setbacks in the relations between the two countries and to think carefully whether to treat China as a partner or a threat,” said Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s ministry of foreign affairs.


CRITICISMS: Other global criticisms of AUKUS have come from experts on nuclear non-proliferation. 

Experts worry that the deal could risk global anti-nuclear proliferation efforts. Only six countries in the world have nuclear-powered submarines: the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and India. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), non-nuclear states are allowed to have nuclear-powered submarines, and they can remove the highly-enriched uranium (HEU) from them, this in theory being capable of being used to manufacture nuclear weapons. This is a dangerous loophole in the NPT, according to James Acton, a member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Similarly, Tariq Rauf, the former head of verification at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that the deal could “open a Pandora’s Box of proliferation” since it could encourage other non-nuclear countries like Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Saudi Arabia and South Korea to buy nuclear submarines to acquire weapons-grade fuel. Furthermore, it could lead to further proliferation, since China, for example, could sell similar submarines to countries like Pakistan. 

This may be an especial threat, since Washington has previously empowered India (at the expense of Pakistan), hoping that New Delhi will balance Beijing’s power in Asia. This US policy obviously offends Islamabad, which is already engaged in a cold war and arms race against New Delhi. The US-Australia nuclear deal may thus encourage Islamabad to acquire nuclear weapons. Pakistan is already a nuclear-powered country, and a Pakistani nuclear bomb would be a source of concern for the West. Islamic currents are strong in Pakistan, and any nuclear weapons could potentially be stolen and even find their way to groups similar to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Islamic State (IS). 

White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki has responded to such fears by saying that the US is committed to non-proliferation and calling the submarine sale to Australia “an exceptional case, not a precedent-setting case”.

Not wanting the situation to escalate, however, Biden requested a phone call with Macron to try to calm the situation. After the call on 22 September, both presidents issued a joint statement where they said that they agreed to conduct in-depth consultations on matters of joint strategic importance and to have a meeting at the end of October.

On 5 October, Blinken travelled to Paris to meet Le Drian, where the two men exchanged points of view. Blinken also had talks with Macron and described his talks with the French president as “very positive” and “very productive.” However, he said that diplomatic words were not enough, and that “the crisis is serious. It is not resolved just because we have resumed dialogue… To get out of it we will need acts rather than words.” 

The situation will most likely be resolved before escalating into a full crisis, given the common strategic interests and cooperation between the US and the major European countries. Nevertheless, the obvious lesson to learn from all of this is that there are no sentiments in international politics, and that, as British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston said before the British parliament in 1848, “we have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” 

France, like the US, the UK, and even Australia, has a history of colonialism and betrayal, but it has been reminded of the Palmerston lesson the hard way.  

*The writer is a political science lecturer at the British University in Egypt, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, UK.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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