• Sean Young

A Rough Patch: France, Australia, and the US’s Strained Relationship after Secret Submarine Deal

On September 15, United States President Joe Biden announced a new submarine deal with the United Kingdom and Australia, known as AUKUS. The news came as a surprise to France, who had made a submarine deal, once referred to as the “contract of the century,” with Australia five years prior. When French President Emmanuel Macron found out about the new deal through the Australian media, he was left “dumbfounded, humiliated, and irate.” In response, Macron withdrew his ambassadors from the US and Australia on September 17th.


The Old Deal: France and Australia’s Prior Relationship


Five years ago, France and Australia built an alliance on their overlapping concerns about China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific. Worried by China’s rising influence in the region, France sought to play a greater role in security and influence in the Pacific, while Australia hoped to advance its security measures and to affirm its position as a “maritime-based trading nation. Though an expensive deal, (France was to spend an estimated 90-billion-dollars over the course of thirty-five years) the countries attempted to achieve these goals. The deal included the building of twelve diesel-powered submarines, which would create an estimated 2,800 jobs for Australians. For France, this deal signified a major geopolitical and diplomatic signal of a new close ally. Both countries saw it as a necessary step forward.


However, the past year’s global pandemic brought about new security issues. After Australia called for an objective investigation into COVID-19’s origins, China imposed tariffs on Australian exports. This led to a chain of arguments and accusations between the two powers, including 5G technological disputes, alleged spying, and political interference. China’s advancement in shipbuilding and anti-submarine tech became another concern for Australia. These factors led Australians to feel insecure and doubtful about France’s diesel-powered submarines. They began to question whether their French ally would be able to provide the necessary security. Acting on this fear, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison resorted to nuclear power. The country enlisted the help of the US and the UK—two of only six nations in the world to operate nuclear-powered missile submarines to make a new deal. This new deal would provide Australia with nuclear undersea technology, expanded cyber capabilities, and artificial intelligence they believed necessary to overcome China as a threat.


Sharing these technologies with another country is no small feat. According to The Economist, the last time that the US has handed over nuclear power to another country was sixty-three years ago. Now, it is providing Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, and it will be the second time in US history that nuclear technology is shared. An anonymous American official said, the AUKUS deal “is an exception to our policy in many respects… [it is] a one-off.”


The Secrecy of the New Submarine Deal


On June 11, the world leaders of the Group of Seven—the UK, the US, France, Canada, Japan, Germany, and Italy—met in Cornwall, England to discuss plans toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic and creating international unity and cooperation. All of these goals met the official agenda’s key objectives for discussing the advancement of global health and the support of international institutions. Australia, India, South Korea, and South Africa were also invited to participate in these discussions as guest countries.


On the surface, the intentions of this meeting seemed to have been fulfilled. The US, UK, and France were getting along “swimmingly,” said Matthew Dalton of the Washington Post. Yet, unknown to Macron at the time nor on the official agenda were secret negotiations facilitated by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Morrison and Biden to negotiate a submarine deal.


Shortly after finding out about AUKUS, Macron decided to recall his ambassadors from the US and Australia. The action of recalling an ambassador has never been made in the history of the Franco-American alliance. But LeDrian thought it necessary in this event, considering the deal with Australia and the UK an act of betrayal and accusing the countries of lying and duplicity. These sentiments were made clear, as Dalton points out that calling back an ambassador from an ally country is probably “the biggest diplomatic step for registering anger.”


His ambassador to the UK, on the other hand, was not recalled. This is because “Britain...is a bit like the third wheel,” said French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian. Johnson’s secret facilitation of the deal did not help France and the UK’s already strained relationship by years of post-Brexit disputes. Nevertheless, agreeing with Le Drian’s statement, France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune further dismissed the UK as a “junior partner” to the US and an ally that is necessary for France to keep if it wants to maintain involvement in the Pacific.


The Future of AUKUS


Despite French backlash, Morrison has high hopes for the new alliance and what it will bring to the Pacific region. “Our world is becoming more complex,” said Morrison, “the future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures.”


Although China has accused the three powers of having a "Cold War mentality," Morrison argues that the deal’s intent is simply to ensure the “peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” Biden issued a similar statement, emphasizing that the most modern defense capabilities are necessary to secure this region. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said it showed Britain’s readiness to be “hard-headed” in its foreign interests.


The AUKUS deal left France out of the loop, but its involvement in the Indo-Pacific is not over. Nevertheless, as one German official points out, the deal could be a “silver lining for France’s broader goals.” As Europe’s loudest proponent for “strategic autonomy,” Macron can take a step back and maintain “a balanced approach to the United States and China.” He emphasizes the pros of remaining neutral in Indo-Pacific conflicts, but cooperating with Australia and its newfound alliance might allow for more European states to contribute to security in Asia.


Later during the month of October, Biden and Macron plan to issue a joint statement with Macron sending his ambassadors back to Washington D.C. Still, the secret deal has hurt the Franco-American alliance in a way that seems unfamiliar and uncertain. As for Australia, potential future EU trade negotiations could be threatened by France’s embitterment. It is "unthinkable to move forward on trade negotiations as if nothing had happened,” said Le Drian. Thus, although Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom have eased their anxieties over China in pursuing this deal, it seems that their sacrificed relationships with France have introduced an entirely new set of problems.