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US, European Allies Navigate Australian Submarine Deal's Wake

By Nike Ching September 22, 2021

The United States and its European allies are navigating the diplomatic disturbance following an enhanced trilateral security partnership known as AUKUS (Australia, the UK, and the U.S.) that triggered what French officials described as a "crisis of trust" between Paris and Washington.

Under the new security pact, Australia will receive at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, to be built in Australia using American technology. The agreement came as Australia pulled out of an earlier deal with France for diesel-electric submarines, angering Paris. France recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and to Australia.

Some experts said that while European officials acknowledged that AUKUS was announced primarily with an eye on China, part of the French reaction was driven by domestic political calculation, as France has a sizeable defense industry, and President Emmanuel Macron's government needs to show it is fighting for the industry.

Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly.

"The Secretary welcomed the recent release of the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and reiterated the United States' intention to work closely with the EU and other partners to support a free and open Indo-Pacific region," the State Department said in a statement.

The meeting followed a phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Macron in which the two leaders decided to "open a process of in-depth consultations" to ensure "confidence."

Macron decided the French ambassador will return to Washington next week. Biden reaffirmed the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

"I am sure that we are going to talk about the recent issues in which we can build a stronger confidence among us following the conversation that had been taking place this morning between President Biden and President Macron. I'm sure we'll be working together," Borrell said.

Blinken said he looked forward to "a lot to talk about the work we're doing together, quite literally, around the world, to include, of course, Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific and Europe and beyond."

After EU foreign ministers met Monday in New York, Borrell expressed "solidarity" with France, saying the tension between Washington and Paris "was not a bilateral issue" but affected all Europeans. The EU foreign policy chief also called for "more cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation" in the transatlantic alliance.

A senior State Department official said Tuesday in a phone briefing that EU partners have not only been sharing concerns with the U.S. following the AUKUS deal but have also been interested in continuing and broadening "the dialogue that we have started intensively on China" and collaboration on issues regarding the Indo-Pacific region.

"The AUKUS deal was primarily about China," said Christopher Skaluba, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. "Some of the (French) reaction is driven by domestic political calculation regarding anti-American sentiment that has a long tradition in France, especially given the industrial angle, which hurts President Emmanuel Macron with a key constituency," Skaluba wrote in commentary published by the Atlantic Council.

"Letting France cool down and keeping dialogue in direct bilateral channels — when France is ready for it — should be the priority," added Skaluba.

Others, including Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the anger from France was partly sparked by a bad "surprise" as the Biden administration was seen making a bold announcement to catch China off guard.

Green said during a Wednesday press call that the AUKUS announcement came as the EU was rolling out its new Indo-Pacific strategy.

"The French, in their anger and retaliations for losing this sub deal and being embarrassed by the surprise announcement of AUKUS, have started arguing that they're going to pursue a new approach to Asia with India and Indonesia and others that's less militaristic."

Last week, the EU released its inaugural Indo-Pacific strategy in which the Europeans are said to be more aware of challenges ranging from growing Chinese assertiveness to the weakening of democratic principles.

"We consider that this approach is very much about confrontation with China," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday at a press conference in New York, referring to the EU's Indo-Pacific strategy and the AUKUS security deal. But Le Drian expressed dismay with the U.S. over AUKUS and what he described as a "breach of trust between partners."

Also Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that "the U.K. and France have an important and indestructible relationship" and that there will be discussions about "how to make the AUKUS pact work so that it is not exclusionary, it is not divisive."

"It really doesn't have to be that way," Johnson added. "This is just a way of the U.K., the U.S. and Australia sharing certain technologies."

While a separate bilateral meeting between Blinken and Le Drian was not planned for Wednesday, both will attend a virtual Group of 20 foreign ministerial meeting, as well as a ministerial among five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, during which both men will "have a chance to exchange views on a number of things," the State Department said.

VOA's Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

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