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Submarine Row Leads to Major Diplomatic Spat Between France and U.S.

France and the U.S. are in a historic diplomatic row after Australia negotiated a submarine deal with the Americans, canceling a previous project with the French.

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President Emmanuel Macron ordered the recall of the French ambassadors in Washington and Canberra, a few days after Australia announced it would scrap a five-year-old multibillion-dollar submarine deal with France and construct a nuclear submarine with shared technology from the U.S. and the UK. The announcement is part of a new defensive pact signed between the leaders of the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom with the aim to counter Chinese influence in the region.

The French foreign minister called the deal an “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners” with french officials calling the decision to cancel the five-year-old submarine deal with France a “stab in the back”. According to a senior American official quoted by The New York Times Biden informed the French about the U.S.-UK-AU (called AUKUS) deal on the same day that the pact was officially announced.

The decision is an unprecedented one, as it is the first time that France has recalled its ambassador from the United States since both countries began having diplomatic relationships back in the foundational years of America. The move by Macron represents the lowest point in Franco-American relationships since the french refusal to join the United States in the Iraq War in 2003.

The U.S. government has tried to calm the waters with France, with a White House official saying that the administration “will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences”. President Biden also tried to treasure France before Macron recalled their ambassador by saying in a press conference that France “has a substantial Indo-Pacific presence and is a key partner and ally” in the region.  

France is not the only country upset by the AUKUS deal, with China condemning the deal as “extremely irresponsible”, saying the deal seriously “undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”, while also accusing the United States of having an “obsolete Cold War mentality”.

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The Prime Ministers of Australia and the United Kingdom held a teleconference with President Biden to announce the deal (EFE)

What is the AUKUS alliance announced this week?

The submarine deal, which has caused such a rift with France, would only be the first step of the AUKUS alliance, which has the objective of “working hand in glove to preserve security and stability in the Indo-pacific” as said by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the press conference that revealed the creation of the alliance to the world.

President Biden, whose foreign policy record has been marked by the botched retreat from Afghanistan, also said that the alliance will “bring together our sailors, our scientists, and our industries to maintain and expand our edge in military capabilities and critical technologies, such as cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea domains”

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President Macron ordered the recall of France’s ambassadors from Australia and the United States as a sign of protest (EFE)

British Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace has said that China has taken part in an expansive military spending spree which has seen its army and navy grow at astonishing rates, which has left many allies to be able to “stand their ground” against Chinese incursions in disputed areas such as the South China Sea.

The submarines, which would be conventionally armed but nuclearly powered, would make Australia one of the few countries in the world to possess such technology. The other six countries that have nuclear submarines are the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, and India.

Although French officials have been clearly displeased and expressed surprise at the announcement, the Australian-French submarine deal had begun to unravel years before this week, with complaints that the french submarines would be too vulnerable to cyberwarfare, had already overrun its initial budget by a lot, and that the French company in charge of building the submarines had already run far behind schedule.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and French Defense Minister at an event confirming the financing of the French submarine project in 2019 (EFE)

What does this mean for the Western Alliance?

The move could probably have two sets of consequences: it showcases the determination of the United States of maintaining a strong presence in the Indo-pacific region and it illustrates the challenges facing the traditional transatlantic western alliance.

On the first front, a CSIS article argues that the move showcases that Canberra, which was hoping to not have to choose between the U.S. and China a few years ago, is “gambling that the gambling that Washington is in the Pacific to stay” a move that would be surely well-received by other American allies in the region who might be scared of increasing isolationism in Washington DC.

On the second front, the relationship between Europe and the United States is going into a new rough patch, Biden’s decision to not warn Paris about its deal with Australia will sure strain relationships between both countries even more, especially after the lack of allied coordination that was seen during the Afghan retreat of last month.

President Macron himself has previously criticized portions of the transatlantic alliance, calling for France to be “strategically autonomous” in its foreign policy and infamously saying that NATO was “brain dead” in 2019. The submarine impasse between Paris and Washington D.C. might convince Macron even more of the need of finding a new focus for French and European foreign policy.

The announcement of the AUKUS deal is a great illustration of the two trends that are going to define global politics over the next few years: the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region, and the growing tensions behind the classical transatlantic alliance between the United States and Europe.

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