AUKUS: the future of Western-led geopolitical networks
The recent AUKUS pact between the US, the UK and Australia is telling for the future of Western-led geopolitical networks, according to defence analyst Julian Lindley-French. AUKUS reveals how Western alliances, coalitions and regimes are being transformed by China’s growing maritime military power. Eventually, France and other European countries will have no other choice than to find their own roles in this transforming geopolitical landscape.
The trilateral security and defence pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) represents the future of a West that is more characterised by shared global values than by geographical location. Such coalitions of real military power will provide a form of deterrence and defence insurance for smaller powers and for more formal alliances whose power-base is often weak or even chimeral in nature.
What does the deal consist of? The US and UK will provide Australia with eight nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) that should replace the twelve Attack/Barracuda-class advanced diesel-powered submarines that were built under a contract with France as part of a seriously troubled programme. As one unnamed French official told Le Figaro: “The Australian government had lost confidence in the ability [of Naval Group] to deliver the submarines on time. We haven’t done the job properly.” 1
Moreover, Canberra has become increasingly concerned that the French submarines would simply not be fit for Australia’s future strategic purpose. The sheer distances in the Indo-Pacific are enormous, making endurance a vital requirement for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Furthermore, they need to conduct stealthy surveillance operations close to Chinese ports.
Both of these factors alone make the Attacks/Barracudas obsolete even before the planned delivery of the first submarine in 2030. Therefore, in the face of China’s growing submarine force, Australia has been forced to overcome political concerns about the use of nuclear propelled submarines.
Why are the French so upset? The French certainly have legitimate concerns about the technology they have already transferred to the Australians under the contract, but it is the subterfuge used by three ostensibly close allies and partners which has so upset Paris.
For the Americans, AUKUS is the beginning of a new chapter in its changing global strategic posture
On 30 August 2021, the two countries issued a statement in the wake of a Paris meeting which boasted that “[t]hese first discussions in such a format reflect the very high level of France and Australia’s strategic and operational cooperation”.2 In fact, the Australians already knew that AUKUS had been agreed in principle at the June meeting of the G7 in Carbis Bay, Cornwall. Still, as the former British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a piece in The Times: “Paris would not have hesitated to do the same the other way round and gleefully attribute it to Brexit.”3
AUKUS and the Americans
For the Americans, AUKUS is the beginning of a new chapter in its changing global strategic posture. It is based on the need to maintain both deterrence and defence-in-depth in multiple parts of the world and across various domains.
For most Europeans, AUKUS points the way to something similar: networks that are both independent of the EU and NATO and yet reinsurance for both, albeit in a very much more informal ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sort of way, much like the Five Eyes intelligence club.4
AUKUS and NATO will together be vital if the US is to ease the growing overstretch to which its armed forces are increasingly subject because of the rise of an aggressive, militaristic China and its ‘mini-me’, Russia. AUKUS is thus a precedent – and not just for Australia, the UK and US. Over time, other democratic powers, such as Japan and South Korea, are bound to follow suit; not to mention in time Canada and New Zealand, and possibly even India.
AUKUS and the Australians
Australia is a strategically-located, important ‘middle power’ with long and trusted links with both the US and the UK. Australia and the UK are also unsinkable bases for American power and the two organising hubs for coalitions on America’s Atlantic and Pacific flanks. This will also help keep the US’ national security strategy credible in the eyes of adversaries.
Since Australia questioned China’s explanation about the origins of COVID-19, Beijing has become increasingly aggressive towards Canberra. It has used trade sanctions to damage the Australian economy, and has engaged in extensive cyber-attacks and espionage to coerce the Australians.
There will undoubtedly be a certain degree of Schadenfreude in parts (not all) of London’s body politic over AUKUS
China might be Australia’s biggest trading partner, as it is for many countries, but it is also led by a regime that can turn very nasty, very quickly. AUKUS anchors Australia firmly into an American-led global pact of defence democracies and reminds China that Australia has powerful friends. In short, AUKUS, of which the subs are but a part, better protects Australia against Chinese threats than France ever could or ever would.
AUKUS and the British
There will undoubtedly be a certain degree of Schadenfreude in parts (not all) of London’s body politic over AUKUS, in spite of Boris Johnson’s claim that the Franco-British relationship is “rock solid”.5 As one senior German colleague reminded me recently, there can be no question that some element of retaliation is involved on the British side for France’s hard-line over Brexit. These kinds of periodical Franco-British bust-ups are hard-wired into an ancient relationship.
Remarkably, Paris does not believe it has taken a hard line over Brexit, which reveals the level of political dissonance that exists between London and Paris. Some in Paris even suggest that Brexit is now merely a legal-technical matter to be handled by the European Commission. That is pure Gallic nonsense. In Paris everything is political, even if it pretends to be legal.
Any powerful European state outside the EU is duty bound to craft its own foreign, security and defence policy, and the British are doing just that. Every time the French utter their ‘Brexit is Brexit’ mantra, the British should thus remind the French that ‘power is power’. Johnson’s strategic reasoning for backing AUKUS thus makes sense for the world’s fifth largest economy and fifth biggest defence spender which invests almost a quarter of Europe’s defence spending and which is Europe’s most capable military power.
AUKUS also puts the recent Defence Command Paper and Integrated Review 2030 in their proper strategic context. London must now follow through with its promise to increase the British defence budget by 10 per cent over the next four years.
Even if France has some grounds for complaint, the country is hopelessly overplaying its hand
The French also know full well that defence power buys influence and thus has a high value in this world that is increasingly characterised by Machtpolitik. The despatching of the new Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group to the Indo-Pacific was clearly carried out knowing AUKUS was in the pipeline and whilst it was undoubtedly showboating, it was showboating for a reason.
AUKUS and the French
Even if France has some grounds for complaint, the country is hopelessly overplaying its hand. The simple fact is that Paris screwed up the submarine contract with the Australians and enabled the Americans and British to out-manoeuvre France using the very kind of statecraft in which Paris prides itself.
France’s foreign intelligence service, the DGSE, should have picked up that something was developing between the three Anglo-Saxon powers. Paris also had enough indicators that the Australians were becoming increasingly alarmed about the submarine contract.
As the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “I think they [the French] would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns about the capability of the Attack-class submarine [which] was not going to meet our strategic interests and we made it very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest.”6
Where does France go next? With the French presidency of the EU about to begin in January 2022, it is likely that France will prioritise European strategic autonomy in the wake of the Afghanistan fiasco and now AUKUS.
France is right. A more capable Europe is vital for the future of both Europe and NATO. The paradox of any such autonomy is that it will only ever be realised outside the EU because ‘autonomy’ is a function of relative power, not words.
The single most important change factor in AUKUS is China’s growing maritime military power projection capability
For France that means it will need the UK. Yet, France has done everything in its power to alienate Britain in response to the Brexit. Given the likely shift to the left in Germany there seems little chance that Berlin is going to become a big defence-strategic actor anytime soon, and no other European state has any particular desire to support French ambitions. If France wants access to Britain’s strengthening armed forces and intelligence services, Paris will need to negotiate.
AUKUS and China
All the above is a strategic sideshow to China. The single most important change factor in AUKUS is China’s growing maritime military power projection capability, which is shifting not just global geopolitics. It is also transforming the very shape and structure of Western alliances, coalitions and regimes.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China now has more ships than the United States Navy (USN). And, critically, unlike the Americans, the overwhelming bulk of the Chinese force is concentrated in the eastern Indo-Pacific.
As long as China remains belligerent and bullying, others will undoubtedly want to join AUKUS
Power is like a light to moths. Whether they want to or not, moths are irresistibly drawn to it. In the Indo-Pacific, there are two lights that shine bright: the US and China. US-China strategic power competition in the Indo-Pacific will be the defining geopolitical contest of the twenty-first century, and AUKUS is the first real step in realigning American-led Western strategy.
As long as China remains belligerent and bullying, others will undoubtedly want to join the pact. AUKUS is thus the product of a complex strategic shift in which changing strategy, threat, requirement and strategic method is interacting with geopolitics, history and culture.
AUKUS and the geopolitical contest between the US and China
Perhaps the most important lesson for the French is not to get trapped within the geopolitical contest between the US and China. To say the least, the administration of Joe Biden has been disappointed by French attempts to water down NATO’s position on China.
The language of the June 2021 Brussels NATO Summit Communique was clear: “China’s growing influence in international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance. We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the Alliance. We are increasingly confronted by cyber, hybrid, and other asymmetric threats, including disinformation campaigns, and by the malicious use of ever-more sophisticated emerging and disruptive technologies.”7 Immediately after the summit, President Emmanuel Macron sought to water down the language and thus the importance of China to NATO.
AUKUS and the future
Could France have been part of AUKUS? For all the current tensions, AUKUS must be seen in the context of a massively bigger picture of strategic power, and at some point France must become part of it.
Not only is AUKUS in many respects the future of Western-led geopolitical networks, the Americans and the British also need the French. The research and development of military applications of artificial intelligence, cyber technologies, quantum computing and new unmanned underwater systems at the heart of AUKUS will be vital to the future military capabilities of all Western allies.8
AUKUS does not mean the West is splitting into an Anglosphere and a Eurosphere. Rather, AUKUS is a new strategic pod of hunter-killer powers who have decided to swim together in the same troubled Pacific waters. As one senior US official put it, AUKUS is “a fundamental decision that binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations”.9 Remember, not only do AUKUS hunt in pacts, blood is thicker than Bordeaux!
- 1Vivian Evans, Your daily betrayal, Independence daily, 18 September 2021.
- 2France Diplomacy, ‘Australia – Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meeting’, Press Release, 30 August 2021.
- 3William Hague, ‘Liz Truss should hug France and empower women’, The Times, 20 September 2021.
- 4Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
- 5‘Britain's relationship with France is rock-solid, says PM Johnson’, Reuters, 16 September 2021.
- 6Biden asks for early Macron talks as allies try to smooth tensions, AFP, 18 September 2021.
- 7Brussels Summit Communiqué, NATO, 14 June 2021.
- 8See Lindley-French’s new book Future War and the Defence of Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.
- 9“US, UK and Australia forge military alliance to counter China’, by Julian Borger and Dan Sabbagh, The Guardian, September 20th, 2021