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Antoine Bondaz is director of the Korea Program and the Taiwan Program at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
PARIS – Defense technology alliance between Australia, US and UK is a real blow to France – given Canberra’s decision to cancel a € 50 billion deal on submarines with the country in favor of American-made nuclear submarines.
But if Paris must seek to limit the damage and prepare for the future – in particular by continuing to adapt its strategy in the Indo-Pacific – it would be futile to aggravate the crisis by turning a serious disappointment into a strategic blunder.
Of course, France’s anger is legitimate. The consequences of the crisis are numerous.
The collapse of its submarine contract with Australia is an economic blow to the state-owned Naval Group, dozens of subcontractors and local families in Brittany and elsewhere. Diplomatically, it is also damaging for bilateral relations with Australia and the United States. are high.
This is politically dangerous for French President Emmanuel Macron, who will face attacks over his foreign policy as he seeks re-election next year. And it is a personal disappointment for all those who had worked on the contract since 2014, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian.
And yet, it’s important to avoid overreacting. Non-diplomatic statements on social media are counterproductive and could be used against our interests. Having lost the contract of the century, France must be careful not to lose its credibility and mortgage its future relations.
It is therefore important that Paris do what it can to move forward as quickly as possible. The financial outcome is easy: provisions have been made in the bilateral agreement signed in 2019, the newlyweds already anticipating a possible divorce. The political consequences, and the potential benefits requested from France, must be discussed as soon as possible, particularly in terms of spillover effects for military cooperation, access to bases in the region and industrial cooperation.
Some might now question France’s Indo-Pacific strategy – presented by Macron in Australia in 2018 – but it is important to note that French interests in the Indo-Pacific region remain unchanged.
France stands out from the other countries of the European Union because it has sovereign interests in the region. More than 1.6 million French people live there in the overseas territories and three quarters of the country’s exclusive economic zone, the second largest in the world, are also located there. France is not a spectator in the Indo-Pacific, it is a resident power.
For this reason, Australia will remain a key partner in the South Pacific. Tensions may rise in the short term, but the strategic partnership between the two countries will endure.
On the contrary, this crisis should be an opportunity to speed up the necessary adaptation of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, the government reassuring its Indian and Japanese strategic partners that its commitment in the region is not being called into question.
Paris should also redouble its efforts to deepen partnerships and initiatives with players other than its three strategic partners (India, Australia and Japan), all members of the Quad format and including two close allies of the United States. These new partnerships would complement rather than replace the three existing ones. France should replicate the global maritime dialogue (initiated with Japan in 2019) with other countries. This format is ideal for discussing a large number of subjects (economic, security and environmental), while emphasizing an inter-ministerial approach which is still too often lacking in most countries.
The government should also strengthen its analysis and anticipation capacities in this area. The nuclear crisis with Iran, which obviously remains to be dealt with, is exhausting France’s capacities at a time when the strategic stakes in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly important, including in terms of nuclear proliferation.
Finally, with the publication yesterday of the EU’s first Indo-Pacific strategy, France must continue to integrate a European dimension into its strategy. It must also avoid presenting European strategic autonomy – a necessary step – as a simple reaction to this crisis, as critics of the concept in the United States and in Europe will expect it.
There is also a silver lining in this dark cloud. Given Paris’ concerns about Beijing’s influence in the region, the government can take comfort in the fact that China is the other big loser in Canberra’s decision.
The Beijing regime is not only concerned about increasing Australia’s military capabilities; he is also concerned about the precedent that the agreement sets for other countries that may one day also wish to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, such as Canada, Japan or South Korea. For China, the pact between Washington, Canberra and London is the realization of a long-standing fear: the multilateralization of American alliances in the region. Today it is Australia and the United Kingdom. Tomorrow maybe Japan will join.
France may be paying the price for the deal, but one thing it must nonetheless be happy about: China’s argument that the United States is losing credibility with its allies has just been contradicted in the Indo-Pacific.