In submarine deal with Australia, US counters China but enrages France

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, told Franceinfo radio that the submarine deal was a “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision” by the United States, and he compared the US move to the rash and sudden policy shifts common during the Trump administration.

Underscoring its fury, France canceled a gala scheduled for Friday at its embassy in Washington to mark the 240th anniversary of a Revolutionary War battle.

“This looks like a new geopolitical order without binding alliances,” said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris. “To confront China, the United States appears to have chosen a different alliance, with the Anglo-Saxon world separate from France.” She predicted a “very hard” period in the old friendship between Paris and Washington.

The deal also seemed to be a pivot point in relations with China, which reacted angrily. The Biden administration appears to be upping the ante with Beijing by providing a Pacific ally with submarines that are much harder to detect than conventional ones, much as medium-range Pershing II missiles were deployed in Europe in the 1980s to deter the Soviet Union.

A statement from Le Drian and Florence Parly, France’s armed forces minister, called “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France” a regrettable decision that “shows a lack of coherence.”

The Australian vessels would have nuclear reactors for propulsion but not nuclear weapons.

France and the rest of the European Union are intent on avoiding a direct confrontation with China, as they underscored Thursday in a policy paper titled the “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” whose release was planned before the fracas.

It said the bloc would pursue “multifaceted engagement with China,” cooperating on issues of common interest while “pushing back where fundamental disagreement exists with China, such as on human rights.”

The degree of French anger recalled the acrimonious rift in 2003 between Paris and Washington over the Iraq War and involved language not heard since then.

“This is not done between allies,” Le Drian said. His comparison of Biden to former president Donald Trump appeared certain to be taken in the White House as a serious insult.

And France said it had not been consulted on the deal. “We heard about it yesterday,” Parly told RFI radio.

The Biden administration said it had not told French leaders beforehand because it was clear that they would be unhappy with the deal.

The administration decided that it was up to Australia to choose whether to tell Paris, said a US official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the matter publicly. But he allowed that the French had a right to be annoyed, and that the decision was likely to fuel France’s desire for a European Union military capability independent of the United States.

Administration officials described the president’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance as unwavering, and Biden said Wednesday that the deal was “about investing in our source of strength, our alliances, and updating them.”

At least with respect to France, one of America’s oldest allies, that claim appeared to have backfired. France had struck its own deal in 2016 to provide Australia with conventional submarines, and a legal battle over its collapse appears inevitable.

“A knife in the back,” Le Drian said of the Australian decision, noting that Australia was rejecting a deal for a strategic partnership that involved “a lot of technological transfers and a contract for a 50-year period.”

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, did not even mention France in the videoconference with Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain during which the deal was announced.

Britain’s partnership with the United States in the deal is another irritant to France, after the British exit from the European Union and Johnson’s embrace of a “Global Britain” strategy aimed largely at the Indo-Pacific region. Longstanding French suspicion of an Anglophone cabal pursuing its own interests to the exclusion of France is never far beneath the surface.

The deal also challenged President Emmanuel Macron of France on some of his central strategic choices. He is determined that France should not get sucked into the increasingly harsh confrontation between China and the United States.

Rather, Macron wants France to lead the European Union toward a middle course between the two great powers, demonstrating the “European strategic autonomy” at the core of his vision. He has spoken about an autonomous Europe operating “beside America and China.”

Biden, with his “America is back” foreign policy message, had promised to revive the country’s alliances, which were particularly undermined by Trump’s dismissiveness of NATO and the European Union. Hopes ran high from Madrid to Berlin. But a brief honeymoon quickly gave way to renewed tensions.

The French were disappointed that Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not make Paris, where he lived for many years, one of his first destinations in Europe. And they were angered when Biden made his decision on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with scant, if any, consultation of European allies who had contributed to the war effort.

“Not even a phone call,” Bacharan said of the Afghan decision.

In his comments Wednesday, Biden called France a key ally with an important presence in the Indo-Pacific. But the president’s decision, at least in French eyes, appeared to make a mockery of that observation.

The French statement Thursday said that France was “the only European nation present in the Indo-Pacific region, with nearly 2 million citizens and more than 7,000 military personnel” in overseas territories such as French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

Next week, Biden will meet at the White House with leaders of “the Quad” — an informal partnership of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — in what amounts to a statement of shared resolve in relations with Beijing. He will also meet with Johnson, apparently before the Quad gathering.

Given the Australian deal, these meetings will again suggest to France that in the China-focused 21st century, old allies in continental Europe matter less.

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Roger Cohen