Thousands of miles from French fury, ambassadors recalled and galas canceled, the US nuclear submarine deal with Australia has received a much warmer reception in parts of Asia.
The dispute between Paris and Washington goes far beyond the multibillion-dollar security pact announced by the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom last week – it speaks to the tectonic shifts in geopolitics that are expected to define decades to come.
For many experts, this is perhaps the most vivid example to date of how Washington’s attention has shifted away from its former European allies and irrevocably to China. President Joe Biden spoke passionately about restoring ties with post-war US allies across the Atlantic; but many see its priority as extending the pivot to Asia started by its predecessors.
“Joe Biden’s heart, knowing a little bit about the man, is clearly with the Atlantic family and the Western family, there is no doubt about that,” said Fabrice Pothier, French analyst and former NATO political planning chief. .
“However, he is firmly committed to making the United States as strong as possible in what is the fiercest competition ever between two great powers: the United States and China,” he said. he declares.
The immediate reverberations will continue on Friday, when Biden meets with leaders of the “Quad” – an informal alliance comprising the United States, Australia, India and Japan.
The group was revived by former President Donald Trump and later Biden as a tool, among other things, to address their common concerns about Beijing.
Biden and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, on Wednesday held what the White House called a “friendly” call that appeared to calm some of the short-term anger. They agreed to meet in Europe next month.
France erupted in fury last week, claiming it was blinded by the pact, which meant its own $ 66 billion contract to build diesel-electric submarines for Australia would be scrapped.
“It is more than the contract and much more than the money – it is also a question of allies”, declared Tuesday Philippe Etienne, ambassador of France in the United States, recalled by Paris within the framework of his angry response, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”. “What does it mean to be allies if you hide such things from yourself?” “
Michael Roth, German Minister of State for Europe, said the deal was “a wake-up call” and European Council President Charles Michel sharply criticized the Biden administration for letting the Europe “out of the game in the Indo-Pacific region”.
This contrasts with parts of Asia, where the news has been welcomed by those who want to see China’s regional dominance curbed.
India and Japan, two regional rivals of China with which they have territorial disputes, have already welcomed the agreement, dubbed AUKUS.
Elsewhere, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he hoped it would “contribute constructively to regional peace and stability.”
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte stressed his friendship with China despite his own territorial disputes. But even he seemed to welcome the deal, arguing that Australia’s increased ability to project power should “restore and maintain” the balance of regional security rather than destabilize it.
However, not everyone is convinced.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry said last week it was “deeply concerned about the continuing arms race and the projection of power in the region.”
Malaysia also expressed similar concerns and said it is seeking China’s point of view.
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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week that the announcement “seriously undermines regional peace and stability, intensifies the arms race and undermines international efforts to nuclear proliferation ”.
Australia’s acquisition of nuclear powered submarines is certainly not an aberration.
Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are modernizing all their weapon systems, often including long-range missiles costing billions of dollars, some of which are supplied by the United States.
There are fears that China – which already has the world’s largest navy and claims vast territorial claims across the region – could accelerate its own military modernization.
Confrontation and cooperation
The submarine crisis may have surprised a lot of people, but some see it as just the emergence of a trend that lurks under the diplomacy of the Biden administration.
In the eyes of many Europeans, Biden spoke of a good game when he was elected on restoring the tattered transatlantic relationship that has been willfully degraded by Trump. But, in reality, there has been a lot of friction between Washington and Europe, especially over China.
Biden has repeatedly stated that he believes the West and China are engaged in a clash of civilizations – democracy versus authoritarianism – that will define the 21st century. He tried to rally Democratic allies to fight this cause.
However, European countries that have become heavily dependent on Chinese trade are not so sure. As Macron said earlier this year, he believes it would be “counterproductive” to gang up on Beijing.
Nearly two-thirds of European Union citizens believe a new cold war is brewing between China and the United States, according to a poll released this week by the European Council on Foreign Relations. China.
Although officials did not say it directly, many analysts believe Australia’s choice to partner with Washington rather than Paris to build its submarines was another sign that it has embraced the approach Biden.
In the long run, the fallout from the AUKUS deal is seen by observers as the most recent and perhaps the most striking example of a familiar question: how to balance confrontation and cooperation in relations with Beijing.
“If you are from France,” said Pothier, who is now a senior consultant at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, “it hurts to remember that you are no longer the center of the world. ‘Warning”.
“The question, then, for France and the Europeans is, once you get over the anger, what are you going to do about China? Are you going to try to tune in to what the United States and Australia are trying to do? Or are you going to get around this and try something else? “
Biden hopes the answer is the first.