In undersea deal with Australia, US battles China, but enrages France

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PARIS — President Biden’s announcement of a deal to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines has put pressure on the Western alliance, infuriated France and foreshadowed how the conflicting US and European responses to the confrontation with China will affect the global economy. to redraw a strategic map.

Announcing the deal on Wednesday, Mr Biden said it was intended to strengthen and update alliances as strategic priorities shift. But by bringing in an ally in the Pacific to meet China’s challenge, he appears to have alienated a key European and exacerbated already tense relations with Beijing.

France reacted with outrage on Thursday to announcements that the United States and Britain would help Australia develop submarines and that Australia was withdrawing from a $66 billion deal to buy French-built submarines. Essentially, the diplomatic storm is also a business matter: a loss of revenue for the French military industry and a profit for American companies.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian 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 hasty and sudden policy shifts common during the Trump administration.

France underlined its anger and 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 seems to have chosen a different alliance, with the Anglo-Saxon world separated from France.” She predicted a “very difficult” period in the old friendship between Paris and Washington.

The deal also appeared to be a pivotal point in relations with China, which reacted angrily. The Biden administration appears to be raising the bar with Beijing by supplying an ally in the Pacific with submarines that are much harder to detect than conventional ones, much like Pershing II medium-range missiles were deployed in Europe in the 1980s. to deter the Soviet Union.

A statement by Mr Le Drian and Florence Parly, France’s Armed Forces Minister, called “the US choice to exclude a European ally and partner like France” a regrettable decision that “shows a lack of coherence”.

The Australian ships are said to have nuclear reactors for propulsion, but no nuclear weapons.

France and the rest of the European Union plan to avoid a direct confrontation with China, as they underlined on Thursday in a policy paper titled “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, the release of which was planned before the spat .

It said the bloc would pursue “multifaceted engagement with China”, collaborate on issues of common concern and “pull back where there are fundamental disagreements with China, such as over human rights”.

The level of French anger recalled the bitter 2003 rift between Paris and Washington over the Iraq war and involved language that has not been heard since.

“This doesn’t happen between allies,” said Mr. LeDrian. His comparison of Mr Biden to Mr Trump certainly seemed to be taken as a serious insult in the White House.

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

The Biden administration said it had not told French leaders in advance, as it was clear they would not be happy with the deal.

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

Government officials described the president’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance as unwavering, and Mr. Biden said on Wednesday the deal was “to invest in and update our source of strength, our alliances.”

At least with regard to France, one of America’s oldest allies, that claim seemed to backfire. France had made its own deal in 2016 to supply Australia with conventional submarines, and a legal battle over their collapse seems inevitable.

“It’s a knife in the back,” said Mr Le Drian of the Australian decision, noting that Australia rejected a strategic partnership deal that “involved many technology transfers and a 50-year contract”.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not even mention France during the video conference with Britain’s Mr Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the deal’s announcement.

Britain’s partnership with the United States in the deal is another annoyance for France, following Britain’s departure from the European Union and Mr Johnson’s embrace of a ‘Global Britain’ strategy largely focused on the Indo-Pacific region. Long-standing French suspicion of an Anglophone cabal pursuing its own interests to the exclusion of France is never far from the surface.

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

Instead, Mr Macron wants France to lead the European Union towards a middle ground between the two superpowers, demonstrating the “European strategic autonomy” that is at the heart of his vision. He has spoken of an autonomous Europe that operates “alongside America and China”.

Such comments were irritating — if not more than that, given how far Europe is militarily from such autonomy — to the Biden administration. Mr Biden is particularly sensitive to the question of the 20th century US sacrifice for France in two world wars and France’s pricklyness about its independence within the NATO alliance. Macron has not visited the White House since Biden took office, and there is no sign that he will do so anytime soon.

The EU statement on the Indo-Pacific strategy committed European countries to greater involvement at all levels in the region.

The wording, which combines broad “engagement” with dissent on human rights, broadly reflected Mr Macron’s quest for a policy that does not risk breaking with China, but also avoids bowing to Beijing. France said the strategy “confirmed its desire for highly ambitious action in this region, aimed at preserving the ‘freedom of sovereignty’ of all.”

The document did not foresee that Australian nuclear submarines, possibly armed with cruise missiles, would become a powerful player in the Pacific in a way that could alter the balance of power at sea in an area where China has expanded its influence.

Josep Borrell Fontelles, EU foreign policy chief, presented the European strategy, saying in Brussels that the submarine deal reinforced the bloc’s need for greater strategic autonomy.

“I don’t suppose such a deal was ready the day before yesterday,” Mr. Borrell said. “Despite that, we were not informed.” The US-UK-Australian agreement, he argued, was more proof that the bloc “must exist for ourselves, as the others exist for themselves”.

Conventional submarines can stay underwater for days or at most weeks, while nuclear-powered submarines routinely patrol underwater for months. Their range is limited only by their food supply.

“In terms of the maritime battlespace, there is no comparison in capacity, however good the diesel boat is, especially considering the vast distances from the Pacific Ocean,” said Admiral James G. Stavridis, a former commander in chief of NATO forces in Europe. “This will also enable full interoperability with the US Pacific Fleet, the premier naval power in the Pacific. It’s technologically and geopolitically smart on the part of the Australians.”

Biden, in his “America-is-back” message on foreign policy, had promised to revive the country’s alliances, which have been undermined mostly by Trump’s disdain for NATO and the European Union. Expectations were high from Madrid to Berlin. But a brief honeymoon soon gave way to renewed tensions.

The French were disappointed that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken of Paris, where he lived for many years, did not make one of his first destinations in Europe. And they were outraged when Mr. Biden made his decision on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan without any consultation of European allies who had contributed to the war effort.

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

In his remarks on Wednesday, Biden cited France as an important ally with a significant presence in the Indo-Pacific. But the president’s decision seemed, to French eyes at least, a mockery of that observation.

Thursday’s French statement said France was “the only European country with a presence in the Indo-Pacific region, with nearly two million civilians 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, Mr. 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 determination in relations with Beijing. He will also Mr. Johnson, apparently for the Quad meeting.

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

For Britain, joining the security alliance was further proof of Mr Johnson’s determination to align his country closely with the United States in the post-Brexit era. Mr Johnson has tried to portray himself as a loyal partner to Mr Biden on issues such as China and climate change.

London’s relations with Washington were disrupted by the Biden administration’s lack of consultation on Afghanistan. But the partnership over the nuclear submarine deal suggests Britain remains a preferred partner over France in sensitive areas of security, intelligence sharing and military technology.

Reporting was contributed by Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt in Washington; Aurelien Breeden in Paris; Mark Landler in London; and Elian Peltier in Brussels.

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