Olivier Guitta is the Managing Director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting company for companies and governments.
On September 16 President Emmanuel Macron announced that French forces had killed Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the emir of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, in Mali.
Coincidentally, al-Sahrawi had been at the top of the U.S. wanted list for murdering American Special forces in Niger in 2017. So, it is quite ironic that on the same day U.S. President Joe Biden back-stabbed France by announcing a defence alliance with Australia and the UK that included taking away from Paris the contract of the century.
France had signed in 2016 a deal worth $66 billion to supply 12 diesel-powered submarines to Australia. As late as August 30 both countries’ leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the submarine programme. This while Australia had been negotiating since at least March with the UK and the U.S. on getting a deal for nuclear-powered submarines.
It was a deal so secret and so controversial that reportedly only 10 people in the British government knew about it. The project was almost finalised at the G7 meeting in England in June under the nose of Macron while he was cosying up to Biden.
The Biden administration blindsided France, which accused top U.S. officials of hiding information about the deal despite repeated attempts by French diplomats to know what was going on. French diplomats said they first learned of the deal when news leaked in Australian media hours before the official announcement on Wednesday.
Expressing his fury for not only the cancellation of the deal but the handling of the announcement and the non-consulting of France, Macron immediately recalled its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra.
It is quite telling that this is the first time ever happened that France recalled its ambassador to the U.S., showing the seriousness of the diplomatic crisis. Interestingly enough, even Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said he understood Paris’ fury to be cut out from the alliance.
Things could have gone down way differently: If technology was the problem, why did the Australians not talk to the French about it since, incidentally, France also has nuclear-powered submarines?
We are not talking here about $60 million or $600 million or even $6 billion but about $66 billion. There was surely a way to find a consensus between the four allies, even when bringing to the table the U.S. and the UK, like splitting the contract in three.
In fact, the bigger picture is even more important than the huge defence contact since this AUKUS alliance, as it is called, is all about standing up to China. It is quite ironic that Biden has pushed away France from that alliance since in the past few months Paris has been one of the most sanguine to oppose China’s influence in the region.
Indeed, back in March, China complained about the French military’s activities in the disputed South China Sea, after it sent two warships there. In April, these ships took part in a three-day military exercise with the four members of the Quad alliance- Japan, India, Australia and the U.S.
That’s not all: France, that has several territories in the Pacific, has committed to helping Japan on the military and security level, i.e., protecting against China. Indeed, when Macron visited Japan during the Tokyo Olympics, Prime Minister Suga said he welcomed French plans to build on regional cooperation by boosting Paris’ efforts to “reinforce its strategic orientation, presence and actions in the Indo-Pacific in order to contribute to security, stability and sustainable development in the region.”
In light of this, Biden’s decision to snub France is another major faux-pas that is basically undermining his plan for an anti-China front. This hasn’t escaped Beijing that while officially very angry about the deal denouncing it, China might turn out to be the ultimate winner since it has de facto possibly broken the French resolve to side with the US against Beijing. Indeed, Macron said that France might narrow its focus to concentrate on its specific Indo-Pacific interests, rather than working to push back against China more broadly.
Biden, who wanted to break off from his predecessor when it came to trans-Atlantic relations, has missed yet another opportunity to do so with the AUKUS alliance. His potential anti-China front has been definitely undercut and ironically only of his own doing.
Including France in the alliance would have been wise to repair a deteriorating relationship with Europe that has witnessed the huge historical debacle in Afghanistan, the de facto approval of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. Biden has in just eight months lost all of his credibility in European capitals, not a small feat indeed.