AUKUS: The Geopolitics of Nuclear Submarines

Author bio: Philippine Hébert is a French 2nd year BA student in International Relations at King’s College London, currently on a year abroad at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Interested in geopolitical and defence-related matters, her work is interdisciplinary, ranging from the stakes surrounding the relationship between Russia and Europe to France’s politics and international finance.

“China’s influence is bound to rise”, Manmohan Singh, India’s former PM, declared in 2006 when discussing the balance of power in the region. While the geopolitical landscape has known new developments since then, China’s rise has been confirmed to be a decisive trend in the shaping of the 21st century’s political landscape. This is all the more the case when looking at the Indo-Pacific area, where China’s growing influence and territorial revendications have unsettled various countries, with Australia and the United States at the forefront. With a view towards counterbalancing China, President Biden announced on the 15th of September 2021 the creation of an enhanced security partnership, gathering Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States under the acronym AUKUS. This partnership includes the sale of eight US Virginia-class SSN to Australia, nullifying a previous contract between the Australian government and the French company Naval Group for twelve French Barracuda-based Attack-class submarines. While this pact was supposed to be good news for US interests in the area, it sparked French fury at the highest level of government, triggering one of the greatest diplomatic crises between western allies since 2003 and the invasion of Iraq.

It appears that while the way in which this treaty was enacted leaves something to be desired, the treaty’s substance seeks to address challenging issues that cannot be ignored. On another note, this treaty has shed a different light on the state of the relationship between France and the Anglosphere, reflecting salient political conundrums beyond just the scuppering of a commercial deal. It should be stressed that AUKUS’ constructive aspects do not necessarily mean that problems and tensions associated with the deal will naturally subside. For France especially, at stake in its snub by AUKUS is its entire Indo-Pacific strategy and foreign policy worldview, with consequences for how France conceptualizes its role and diplomatic relationships with other key countries in international affairs beyond the Indo-Pacific.

While the manner in which AUKUS was enacted may leave more to be desired, its substantial gains for the West are significant nonetheless in addressing pressing issues in the Indo-Pacific. In short, the partnership is squarely aimed at countering China’s ambition in the area. Indeed, the geopolitical epicentre of global affairs has, for the West, been progressively shifting from the Middle East to the Pacific. While there may be some nuance, it is a simple reality that Asia will play a prominent and decisive role in the 21st century. China’s growing influence and territorial revendications are directly affecting the area, with regards to Taiwan for example. While this was already true by the time the first discussions were held between France and Australia in 2009 – which prompted these talks in the very first place – the context is different today. Diesel-electric Barracuda submarines are no longer fully sufficient for the Chinese threat. There has been an increase in tensions between the two countries, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic with China imposing several trade restrictions and attempting to politically delegitimize Australia. Its assertiveness has generated significant apprehension and scepticism regarding its professed peaceful rise in the region and beyond. Nuclear-powered submarines have a longer strike range capacity and can remain submerged much longer than submarines running with diesel – a decisive element when looking to patrol in the South China high sea. While there is a case for diesel-powered submarines, especially when considering defending one’s country against an invasion, nuclear submarines’ features seem more adapted to the Australian government’s current needs. Moreover, this partnership not only regards the sale of submarines but also aims to develop what Australian Prime minister Morrison defined as “joint capabilities and operability” in his joint statement on the 15th of September 2021. Technically, it means that AUKUS countries will cooperate on cyber issues and artificial intelligence as well. In an ever-evolving world where threat perceptions towards China have been sharpened, there is an increased need to incorporate these areas in national security. The foundations had already been laid out with the Five Eyes partnership in 1941, including New Zealand and Canada too. Finally, when looking at the bigger picture and putting the French perspective aside, we must recognize that this partnership serves all three countries’ interests. Australia is increasing its defence capacities, the United Kingdom is enforcing its post-Brexit Global Britain strategy and increasing its ties with the United States, in a time where it finds its post-Brexit relations with Europe uneasy due to tensions concerning borders, Ireland, and fishing licenses, among others. It can be seen as a strategic move to seek the support of the Anglosphere in finding its new position on the world stage. Regarding the United States, it has an interest in contesting China’s position in what is a vital area for Chinese interests.

This partnership confirms a shift in the strategy of these three countries but also reveals deeper issues that had been overlooked in the past years, explaining partly the poor management of the situation, by the United States especially. Europe “must stop being naive”, rightly declared President Macron in the aftermath of the diplomatic crisis. Indeed, the United States is no longer in a post-Cold war era but is rather progressively building a post-Atlantic strategy, which Europe seemed to have failed to understand. Its agenda has changed; while counterterrorism, NATO, or Russia remain important matters, China is now its top priority, and failure to understand this inevitably leads to a misapprehending of tomorrow’s challenges for European countries. The hasty pull-out of Afghanistan is only the most recent indication of a relative shift in US interests to the East. The United States fears that China’s rise upsets the balance of power and challenges its position of leader on the international stage. These concerns now seem to outweigh its relationship with Europe, already affected by Brexit. There has also been a feeling in Washington that Paris may seek a more neutral approach to China that would not coincide completely with US interests. Indeed, France supported an EU-China trade agreement in the past year according to the Chinese summary of a video call between Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and President Xi Jinping. At the same time, its repeated calls for strategic autonomy, a long-time trend that dates back to General De Gaulle in the 1960s, are not entirely well-received in Washington. All this can partly explain the US’ crude handling of the situation in promulgating AUKUS at France’s expense. Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to the United States, had only been made aware of the treaty a couple of hours before the joint conference, after there had already been leaks in the press. Negotiations are believed to have taken place during the G7 summit in Cornwall which France attended, at the beginning of June, without President Macron knowing. It was no secret that the contract was suffering tensions but repeated attempts by French officials to address this presumed discontentment in the past months had not been addressed by US officials. Furthermore, a joint declaration by Naval Group and the Australian government assuring that the contract was going forward was released on the 30th of August 2021, only two weeks before it got cancelled. While President Biden recognized a “clumsy” treatment of France when meeting with President Macron in Roma, in the context of the G20 summit, one can only speculate regarding the reasons behind the extremity of this clumsiness. Another question that can be raised regards the reason why the United States felt the need to exclude France from these very talks. Not only is it a long-term ally but also a strategic power in the area with more than 2 million French citizens living in the Pacific. It is also the second-largest maritime power in terms of the size of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with 93% of it in the Indo-Pacific. On the 12th of December, New Caledonia confirmed in a final referendum its desire to be French – all the which reinforces France’s position and interests.

There is also another downside to this treaty for France. It reinforces the narrative in France that the United States is not a trustworthy ally. Following the news of the announcement, Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, described a “stab in the back”. There had already been a major breach of trust in 2013 when President Obama renounced at the last minute the decision to intervene, alongside France, in Syria. More recently, the United States decided to leave Afghanistan without consulting its allies on the intricacies of the withdrawal’s direct impact on counterterrorism efforts and the migration crisis Europe would have to deal with. President Biden’s presidency was supposed to break with President Trump’s diplomacy and restore trust between western allies. Instead, we can now observe a serious strain in the transatlantic relationship, at least for France. Moreover, this pact undermines NATO’s cohesion through its alienation of France, at a time where questions have already begun to arise regarding its relevance, bearing in mind its post-Cold War usefulness has already been brought into question. In 2019, President Macron had declared that NATO was experiencing a “brain death”. In the light of the recent events, further calls in the French political landscape have been made to leave this alliance, now appearing as rather meaningless and no longer fully serving France’s geopolitical interests the way it used to. While US commitment to NATO remains stable and relations with other European countries are in better state, how France’s support (or lack thereof) for NATO will affect its future credibility remains to be seen. Another consequence of the treaty concerns non-proliferation. Indeed, AUKUS broke what some consider and uphold to be a taboo on giving a non-nuclear country access to nuclear technology. It creates a dangerous precedent as well as a severe blow to non-proliferation efforts. While there will be precautions to keep this technology in a black box, the move to provide nuclear technology to a non-nuclear country may lend legitimacy to other countries aiming to gain access to nuclear capabilities. South Korea and Brazil had already requested access to nuclear-powered submarines – others will be expected to follow.

In French words, the “contract of the century” ($66 billion worth) was supposed to launch a “fifty-years marriage” between Paris and Canberra that would be a pillar in France’s Indo-Pacific strategy. While President Macron has made reassurances that AUKUS will not fundamentally change France’s strategic outlook in the Pacific, its cancellation has certainly damaged the French-Australian relationship, on which it relied heavily. It took more than three weeks for the French ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thébault, to be sent back to Canberra, in an unprecedented diplomatic move between the two countries. While its objectives remain the same – guaranteeing French interests and giving states in the area the ability to resist China’s influence – France will now have to seek to deepen its relationships with other South Asian powers in a spirit of cooperation and partnership. Japan and India can be a strategic choice, especially since the first has already expressed its interest to develop a closer military partnership and the latter does not want to fully commit itself to a military alliance with the United States, which can be conciliable with France’s relatively more neutral posture. Within Europe, it could be in France’s interest to partner with Germany to strengthen Europe’s interest in the Indo-Pacific and offer a united front. However, precautions must be taken when establishing a European strategy for the area – while their objectives may differ from the US deterrence posture, a lack of coordination could lead to some clashes. Strategic autonomy and pragmatism are key, but it would be neither France’s nor Europe’s interest to fully distance itself from the United States. Maintaining this balance will be challenging for France given the relative lack of support from European capitals, besides Berlin, in the wake of France’s slap in the face.

Yet, whether the European Union likes it or not, AUKUS raises serious questions on Europe’s desire to play an influential role in global affairs if a country as significant as France can be crudely snubbed by the Anglosphere. The concept of strategic autonomy carried by France is essential to the European Union as well. Led by France and Germany at the forefront, the European Union needs to strengthen its own position on the international stage and face the reality of American relative disengagement analysed above. One could argue that if the transatlantic relationship is no longer what it used to be, then the United States and the European Union are principally and mostly economic rivals. Once again, nuance is essential – they both remain strong allies with shared values and strong political ties worldwide. However, Europe needs to be pragmatic, especially in the aftermath of Brexit, and defend its project. In line with this idea, France signed a €3 billion contract with Greece through Naval Group – 60% state-owned – to sell three Belharra frigates. Earlier this year, Greece had already purchased 24 French Rafale fighter jets. This is part of a larger logic to defend European interests that had already prevailed over summer when Turkey made territorial claims in Greek waters. This contract, signed shortly after the cancellation of the submarines deal, shows a will to deepen cooperation between France and Greece while emphasizing its European focus. On the whole, while jolting Europe into taking bolder steps to secure its strategic autonomy is a challenge, France is undoubtedly primed for a leadership position for driving towards this goal given its influence and hard power capabilities.   

To conclude, AUKUS will have a lasting impact in the South China sea. It promotes cooperation to an extended level between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and is opening the way to further interoperability when facing the new security challenges of the 21st century. It confirms the US post-Atlantic grand strategy and is coherent with the Global Britain project. However, there will be consequences and a lasting strain to the relationship with the European Union, especially France, and non-proliferation. France will have to rethink the way it intended to develop its Indo-Pacific strategy, as part of a larger commitment to move forward with strategic autonomy, on both domestic and European scales. Europe will need to draw lessons from this episode and offer greater pragmatism in its overall diplomatic approach in the future. French handling of the crisis can be seen as successful with the negotiation of greater US commitment in its counterterrorism strategy in Sahel and efforts to boost broader European defence as well as the recognition of French contribution in the Indo-Pacific. Moving forwards, it is to be hoped that the lessons drawn will pave the way to greater cooperation and mutual respect of each other’s interests such as European’s desire for strategic autonomy.

Risk-O-Meter: 11/15 – Elevated Risk

What is the probability that the risk will materialise? 3/3

What is the predicted size of impact? 2/3

What is the expected speed of onset? 2/3

Will regional or non-regional actors be involved? 3/3

What is the probability of spill-over? 1/3

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