France warns ‘Aukus’ alliance threatens security partnerships in Indo-Pacific

By Teddy NgKinling Lo

France is frustrated at being left out of a new security alliance between the United States, Britain and Australia, describing it as a regrettable move that will push Europe to be more autonomous in its strategic planning.

The “Aukus” alliance announced on Thursday by the three nations means Australia will halt its submarine deal with France.

A joint statement released by the French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and armed forces minister Florence Parly said “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.

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“The regrettable decision that has just been announced regarding the [future submarine programme] only reinforces the need to make the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear.”

Australia selected French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a US$40 billion new submarine fleet to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines, but the deal was delayed over Canberra’s requirement that most of the manufacturing and components be sourced locally.

White House officials did not make any explicit mention of China when announcing the new alliance, saying it was not aimed at any particular country but a move to uphold US strategic interests and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

China is facing escalating tensions with nations in the region, over the South China Sea disputes with its Southeast Asian neighbours, a border dispute with India, and a maritime dispute with Japan. The US has over the past months teamed up with its allies to put pressure on China – describing its activities in the region as coercion. British and German military vessels have also sailed to the region.

“This is designed not only to strengthen our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific but to link Europe, and particularly Great Britain, more closely with our strategic pursuits in the region as a whole,” a senior US administration official said.

What is the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and why does the US keep using this term?

The announcement of the alliance comes just as the European Union is about to release details of its Indo-Pacific strategy, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday was inspired by “the fact that autocratic regimes use [the region] to try to expand their influence”.

Der Leyen said she and French President Emmanuel Macron would convene a summit on European defence, and that the EU needed to strength its own forces.

“The more fundamental issue is, why has this not worked in the past? You can have the most advanced forces in the world but if you are never prepared to use them, what use are they? What has held us back until now is not just shortfalls of capacity, it is a lack of political will,” she said.

US President Joe Biden said France was still a key partner of the US. “France, in particular, already has a substantial Indo-Pacific presence and is a key partner and ally in strengthening the security and prosperity of the region. The United States looks forward to working closely with France and other key countries as we go forward,” he said.

Under the new alliance, naval officials and technical specialists from the three countries will work together to give Australia nuclear submarine technology to improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the deal could mean a greater US commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

“The French are unhappy indeed. But I do see merits in having smaller arrangements, especially when the areas of focus could be more specific to certain countries depending on their national interests, capabilities and capacities. That’s why not all arrangements are able to be this inclusive,” he said.

“And usually these different arrangements each has its own focus area while they can also have overlapping ones. In other words, it gives the parties a good deal of strategic flexibility.”

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