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Antoine Bondaz is director of the Korea Program and the Taiwan Program at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
PARIS — The defense technology alliance between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom is a real blow for France — given Canberra’s decision to cancel a €50 billion submarine deal with the country in favor of American-made nuclear-powered submarines.
But while Paris must seek to limit the damage and prepare for the future — notably by continuing to adapt its strategy in the Indo-Pacific — it would be pointless to add to the crisis by escalating a serious disappointment into a strategic blunder.
To be sure, France’s anger is legitimate. The consequences of the crisis are many.
The collapse of its submarine deal with Australia is an economic blow for the state-owned Naval Group, dozens of subcontractors and local families in Brittany and elsewhere. Diplomatically, it’s also damaging for bilateral relations with Australia and the U.S. And militarily, with French government officials arguing that arms sales are “essential to our sovereignty” because they allow “the viability and independence of our defense industry to be maintained,” the stakes are high.
It’s politically dangerous for French President Emmanuel Macron, who will face attacks regarding his foreign policy as he seeks reelection next year. And it’s a personal disappointment for all those who had worked on the contract since 2014, including Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
And yet, it’s important to avoid an overreaction. Undiplomatic statements on social media are counterproductive and could be used against our interests. Having lost the contract of the century, France must make sure it doesn’t lose its credibility and mortgage its future relations.
It’s important, therefore, that Paris do what it can to move on as quickly as possible. The financial untangling is easy: Provisions were made in the bilateral agreement signed in 2019, with the newlyweds already anticipating a potential divorce. The political consequences, and potential benefits requested from France, should be discussed as soon as possible, particularly in terms of the knock-on effects for military cooperation, access to bases in the region and industrial cooperation.
Some might now question France’s Indo-Pacific strategy — presented by Macron in Australia in 2018 — but it’s important to note that French interests in the Indo-Pacific region remain unchanged.
France differs from the other European Union countries because it has sovereignty interests in the region. More than 1.6 million French citizens live in overseas territories there, and three-quarters of the country’s exclusive economic zone — the second largest in the world — is located there as well. France is not a spectator in the Indo-Pacific, it is a resident power.
Because of that, Australia will remain a key partner in the South Pacific. Tensions may spike in the short term, but the strategic partnership between the two countries will endure.
If anything, this crisis should be used as an opportunity to accelerate the necessary adaptation of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, with the government reassuring its Indian and Japanese strategic partners that its commitment to the region is not in question.
Paris should also redouble its efforts to deepen partnerships and initiatives with actors other than its three strategic partners (India, Australia and Japan), all of whom are members of the Quad format and two of whom are close allies of the U.S. These new partnerships would complement rather than replace the three existing ones. France should replicate the comprehensive maritime dialogue (initiated with Japan in 2019) with other countries. This format is ideal to discuss a large number of issues (economic, security and environmental), while insisting on an inter-ministerial approach that is still too often lacking in most countries.
The government should also strengthen its analytical and anticipatory capabilities in the area. The nuclear crisis with Iran, which obviously still needs to be addressed, is drying up France’s capabilities at a time when the strategic stakes in the Indo-Pacific are becoming ever higher, including when it comes to nuclear proliferation.
Finally, with the publication yesterday of the EU’s first Indo-Pacific strategy, France must continue to integrate a European dimension into its strategy. It must similarly avoid presenting European strategic autonomy — a necessary move — as just a reaction to this crisis, since critics of the concept in the United States and Europe will be anticipating just that.
There’s also a silver lining to this dark cloud. Given Paris’ worries about Beijing’s influence in the region, the government can take comfort in the fact that China is the other big loser in Canberra’s decision.
The regime in Beijing isn’t just worried about the increase in Australia’s military capabilities; it’s also concerned about the precedent the deal creates for other countries that would one day also like to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, such as Canada, Japan or South Korea. For China, the pact between Washington, Canberra and London is the realization of a long-standing fear: the multilateralization of American alliances in the region. Today, it’s Australia and the United Kingdom. Tomorrow, maybe Japan will join.
France might be bearing the cost of the deal, but it should nonetheless be happy about one thing: China’s argument that the U.S. is losing credibility with its allies has just been contradicted in the Indo-Pacific.