Biden's miscalculation

joe biden

In April 2021, the European Union published its Indo-Pacific strategy, a ten-point document that formulates the EU-27's common position on cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, although it passed without much fanfare. The strategy brings together the different elements with which the EU aims to enhance its strategic autonomy and promote its interests in the region. It would be frivolous to downplay the importance of this document, as it is the fruit of a consensus reached after a laborious and lengthy negotiation process whose outcome reflects the diversity of member states' strategic priorities, the Brussels political ecosystem's diagnosis of international security issues in Asia, and Europe's positioning as a foreign policy actor.

The existence of this strategy makes the Biden administration's miscalculation of the form and substance of the AUKUS announcement all the more glaring, something that the smokescreen of the submarine affair cannot hide. After the French reaction - which included the unprecedented recall of the French ambassador to the US for consultations - Biden and Blinken can be left in little doubt that they have approached this issue with an inexcusable and counterproductive lack of experience by accepting, at London's instigation, that it was Australia that notified France of the change of partners to improve its military submarine navigation capabilities as a fait accompli.  So much so that Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Adviser Sullivan hastened to make amends by travelling to Paris with a change of pace to try to redirect the situation. The Americans should be aware by now that Paris will not be satisfied with diplomatic apologies and will put a price on a return to normality that is likely to include obtaining greater US support in the Sahel and unconditional backing for the European development of its defence industrial capabilities.

This is now inevitable, as the Biden administration's lack of sagacity in this case betrays the inconsistency of the US position on its demand for greater defence engagement from the EU, only to act against Europeans' moves towards strategic autonomy when it does not follow Washington's dictates, or push to develop an arms industry of its own, which will inevitably work against the interests of American companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

If the EU and the US are serious about a strategic alignment based on a gradual narrowing of the defence gap between the two partners, a series of two-way readjustments will have to take place, which will be futile without a pedagogical effort by the European authorities to make Washington understand that the EU cannot make a clean sweep of the status quo in foreign and defence policy as some influential US analysts seem to believe, but must move against the survival instinct of national institutions that are reluctant to cede sovereignty, to implement a strategic autonomy that requires unanimous treaty change. The recent cases of the German and Polish constitutional courts challenging the primacy of EU law over state law are good evidence that there are no shortcuts.

However, there is no doubt that understanding is inevitable. France, and therefore the European Union, has such specific weight in the Indo-Pacific that it is even grotesque to think that Australia could be a better partner for the US: France has a significant number of overseas territories in the region with some two million inhabitants, all of them with representatives in the French National Assembly, and which are protected by a French contingent of more than 7,000 men stationed in the area.

The European strategy for the Indo-Pacific therefore clearly has a French accent, and the geostrategic configuration of the South Pacific depends much more on how the 175,000 French citizens entitled to vote in the referendum on New Caledonia's independence next December will vote than on the type of submarines that neighbouring Australia will have in the medium term.