US, UK face global backlash over Australia defense deal

September 17, 2021
Currently there are only seven countries that own nuclear-powered submarines.
Currently there are only seven countries that own nuclear-powered submarines.

PARIS -- The United States and the UK are facing growing criticism over a new defense deal signed on Wednesday with Australia in what is seen as an effort to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.

In Europe, the pact left the French government furious and European Union officials somewhat confused as to what the bloc should do about China.

France said it had been "stabbed in the back", while China accused the three powers of having a "Cold War mentality".

The alliance, known as Aukus, was announced by US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison.

The deal will see the US and UK send strategic and technical teams to Australia to help the country procure nuclear-powered submarines. It also meant that the Australian government cancelled a multi-billion contract for non-nuclear submarines with a French manufacturer.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described this as a "real stab in the back" from Australia. He also fired a shot at President Biden, saying that the surprise announcement of this deal without consulting other allies was a "brutal and unilateral decision" that "resembles a lot of what Mr. Trump was doing."

French diplomats in Washington cancelled a gala to celebrate ties between the US and France in retaliation.

"It's a very low moment," France's former ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, told the BBC's World Tonight program. "The US knew that this contract and this strategic contract were essential French national interests, and the US didn't care."

Leaving aside France's wounded pride, the new geopolitical pact between English-speaking maritime powers presents a strategic headscratcher for the EU.

Officials in Brussels said the timing of the announcement was viewed dimly, as the EU's high representative on foreign affairs was set to deliver his own strategy for the Indo-Pacific on Thursday afternoon.

A senior EU official told CNN that this was "English-speaking countries" who are "very belligerent" forming an alliance "against China." The official noted that these were the same nations who took the lead in invading Afghanistan and Iraq. "And we all know the results," they added.

Meanwhile Washington has sought to quell anger in Paris at the pact, which has scuppered a multibillion-dollar submarine deal France had signed with Australia.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called France "a vital partner" and said Washington would still work "incredibly closely" with Paris.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki shrugged off the French criticisms.

"There are a range of partnerships that include the French and some partnerships that don't, and they have partnerships with other countries that don't include us," she said. "That is part of how global diplomacy works."

The pact, which will also see the allies share cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence and other undersea technologies, was described as showing "profound strategic shifts" by the UK's national security adviser Stephen Lovegrove.

It means Australia will become just the seventh nation in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines.

Lovegrove said the pact was "perhaps the most significant capability collaboration in the world anywhere in the past six decades".

China, meanwhile, has accused the allies of having a "Cold War mentality" that would hurt their own interests.

The Chinese state-run Global Times warned of an arms race for nuclear submarines, adding that Australian soldiers were likely to be the "first to die" in a Chinese "counterattack".

And on Friday, China's President Xi Jinping said foreign powers should not be allowed to interfere in the country's affairs.

"The future of our country's development and progress should lie firmly in our own hands," he said, according to state media.

But Australia's defense minister, Peter Dutton, brushed aside Beijing's reaction. "This is not the first time that we've seen different outbursts from China in terms of Australia's position," he said.

"We are a proud democracy in our region. We stand with our neighbors in the Indo-Pacific to ensure enduring peace, and this collaboration makes it a safer region. That's the reality and no amount of propaganda can dismiss the facts."

The EU's strategy for handling China differs from the US in one major way: the EU actively seeks cooperation with China, and sees it as an economic and strategic partner.

Brussels officials believe that by trading and working with China, not only can they lean on Beijing to reform their human rights and energy policies, but also use a good relationship with China to act as a buffer between Beijing and Washington, thus giving the EU a clear and important geopolitical role.

The Aukus deal has, in the eyes of some, undermined any real claim that Brussels had as an influential presence on the world stage.

"The fact that the US is willing to spend more political capital and invest in security and defense ties with the UK and Australia before reaching out to EU powers is quite revealing," said Velina Tchakarova, director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.

She added that despite many positive developments in understanding the importance of this region, "it is obvious that the EU must first become a security actor in the Indo-Pacific in order to be taken seriously by the partners in the Anglosphere."

One EU official familiar with the matter told CNN that the recent developments in Afghanistan and the Aukus announcement has only solidified France's view that the EU needs the capacity to defend its interests and build a presence in the Indo-Pacific region. -- Agencies

September 17, 2021
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