AUKUS, the historic deal to counter China that hurts France

Washington, London and Canberra close ranks to confront Chinese expansionism in the face of Paris's anger and Beijing's threats
Rueda de prensa Joe Biden

PHOTO/AFP  -   US President Joe Biden during a joint press conference with the British and Australian Prime Ministers

Three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the ideological and then physical divide between Soviet and Western spheres of influence, historians disagree about the specific event that marked the beginning of the Cold War. Some regard George F. Keenan's "long telegram" as the fuzzy precursor to the conflict. However, in the event of a repeat of that onslaught, this time with China playing the role of the Soviet Union and the United States perpetrating its role, no one would be in any doubt as to what event marked the beginning of the conflict: the signing of the AUKUS.

The leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia announced this historic arms deal on Thursday. At a joint press conference, 'The Three Amigos' unveiled a three-way alliance that has a major impact on the global geopolitical landscape. US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, signed a document that commits Washington to provide the technology necessary to manufacture nuclear-powered submarines to its main ally in Pacific waters.

This is the first time since 1958 that the United States has shared technology to develop this type of underwater vessel. On the last occasion, the United Kingdom acted as a beneficiary in the framework of the Anglo-American alliance to combat the "communist threat" embodied by the USSR. Only France, China, Russia and India - in addition to the United States and the United Kingdom - have this type of submarine, whose characteristics improve on the conventional one by being able to operate for extended periods of time without the need to surface as frequently.

Submarino nuclear chino
REUTERS/JASON LEE  -  Chinese Navy nuclear submarine Long 11 March takes part in a naval parade off the eastern port city of Qingdao

Under AUKUS, an acronym for Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), trilateral cooperation in advanced defence technologies is also strengthened, especially in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), submarine systems and long-range surveillance. Washington will also open a second base of operations in Perth, a city on Australia's Indian Ocean coast, in addition to the one opened under Obama a decade ago, which houses 2,500 US military personnel.

"The effort we are launching today will help maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region," the White House said in a press release. "Today, we join our nations in an agreement for the next generation, built on a solid foundation of proven trust," Morrison said, adding that Washington, London and Canberra "have always seen the world through a similar lens". Although neither he nor his partners explicitly mentioned Beijing, the agreement constitutes an ironclad alliance with a key objective: countering Chinese expansionism in the region.

The Biden administration's foreign policy is based on this premise. Washington's status as a hegemonic power is under threat and the ramifications of Chinese influence around the globe put the US in a weak position for the first time in decades. The focus of its external action has shifted eastwards, which explains the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and the planned exit from the rest of the Middle East, a region that not only has not brought it any benefits, but has been a headache and has squandered billions of dollars.

Biden y Johnson G7
AP/PATRICK SEMANSKY  -  President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a bilateral meeting before the G7 summit on June 10, 2021, in Carbis Bay, England

Washington already had two strategic forums with similar aims: the Five Eyes and QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). The former, comprising the three signatories plus Canada and New Zealand, is a multilateral intelligence agreement; the latter, comprising Australia and the US with the support of India and Japan, is for information sharing and military exercises. In fact, Biden is expected to host the prime ministers of the latter forum at the White House next week.

Beijing against all

The agreement underscores the degree of threat China poses to the West, and its reaction has been unequivocal. A harsh Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, called the agreement "irresponsible" and declared that the AUKUS partners should "abandon their Cold War mentality and work more for peace and stability or they will end up hurting themselves". The Asian giant has numerous open fronts and a long list of contenders trying to knock it out of the race for global hegemony. The first and most important of these is the United States, with which it shares a fierce political and economic competition. 

Reminiscences of the trade war, the Taiwanese enclave, the battle for cyberspace and, ultimately, the controversial origins of COVID-19 put Washington and Beijing face to face. The tension reached a point where the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, was forced to intervene during Donald Trump's presidency. Milley even held two telephone conversations with General Li Zuocheng of the People's Liberation Army to reassure his interlocutor that, in the event of a US attack, he would give advance warning, according to The Washington Post.

Zhao Lijan portavoz chino
PHOTO/REUTERS/CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS  -  Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian

The friction between Canberra and Beijing began with Australia's refusal to implement the 5G networks offered by Huawei, and worsened with its support for Washington in submitting a request to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to investigate the origin of the coronavirus. In retaliation, China imposed a tariff regime on goods from the Aussie country, ending the 2015 free trade agreement. Despite the situation, the Australian prime minister has reached out to Chinese President Xi Jinping, although the response came from spokesman Lijian: "Australia has to think about whether it wants to see China as a partner or a threat".

The final leg of the table is the UK. One of the reasons, perhaps the main one, that separates London and Beijing's agendas is Hong Kong. The passing of the National Security Law, an ambiguous piece of legislation that grants China sweeping prerogatives to control the enclave and scrap the "one country, two systems" commitment with the massive curtailment of freedoms, was a frontal breach of the sovereignty transfer treaty signed by the two in 1997.

France, the other big loser

Paris had agreed with Canberra to sell 12 propulsion submarines worth 50 billion euros. However, the signing of the AUKUS deal scuppered a commitment that will deprive the French company Naval Group of the benefits of the transaction. Instead, Lockheed Martin will be in charge of manufacturing and selling the ships. A fiasco of billion-dollar proportions interpreted as "a unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision, very much like Trump's" in the eyes of French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Emmanuel Macron
PHOTO/AFP  -   Emmanuel Macron, President of France

"This is not done between allies. It is, to put it bluntly, a stab in the back," he said. The French foreign minister assured that the action would have consequences. In principle, the AUKUS is an airtight coalition that does not admit any more partners, so Biden will have to alleviate the Elysée's dissatisfaction with other resources. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced that the president will maintain high-level contacts with France to iron out differences and retain a partner considered close to date.

France's setback also represents a blow to the authority of the European Union, which has been plunged into absolute international irrelevance. The three AUKUS signatories did not even warn Brussels in advance of their intentions, as the High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, confirmed at a press conference. Borrell himself admitted that he 'had not been aware', although he said he assumed that 'the nature of the agreement was not cooked up before yesterday'.