AUKUS: A French ‘beurre noisette’ in the Indo-Pacific

Any fan of French haute gastronomy understands the prominent role that noisette beurre, or burnt butter, plays in their recipes. As the speciality adds a unique taste to various dishes, the recent AUKUS announcement has the French government feeling a bit burnt without the sweet aftertaste. 

While it is reasonable that the French would be irate over the announcement, and a conspiracy among Allies to torpedo their multi-billion-dollar diesel submarine deal occurred, the long-term merits the AUKUS deal brings to France in the Indo-Pacific will help the Champs-Élysées recover from this fresh burn. 

A lot has been made of the French reaction in the aftermath of the AUKUS announcement. Given both the lost financial windfall and diplomatic embarrassment, it is understandable that Paris would seek an avenue to voice their displeasure.  Calling off a pre-planned party in Washington, recalling their ambassadors from the US and Australia, and seeking public statements of solidarity with the EU are all normal repercussions to expect. Although the short-term optics of the deal are less than desirable and could have been handled better by the troika of capitals, the end result is by no means crushing.

Improper conduct among Allies should be avoided, but France did themselves no favors, with reports suggesting the submarine project – prior to construction – was already facing delays and cost overruns. An Australian parliamentary report first priced the submarine contract at $40 billion, but that number has ballooned to over $60 billion due to Paris’ gross mismanagement of the deal.

As the 1956 Suez Crisis and the 2003 Iraq invasion has proven, time heals all wounds between allies. A bruised French ego will eventually return to normal levels and business as usual among allies will resume. Consequently, instead of harping on their preoccupation with perceived treason, President Macron should seek to understand Australia’s motives to scuttle their deal and risk bi-lateral diplomatic displeasures. For Canberra, more so than Paris, the big picture question of the next decade remains China and the risks it poses to its security.

For Australia, signing this new deal with the US and UK. was a dramatic response to a strategic sense of urgency in their neighborhood. The Australians have felt the heavy hand of Beijing on various fronts, including calling for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and been victimized with coercive trade policies and hard power intimidation. Comments from Beijing’s Global Times in May calling for “retaliatory punishment” if Australia sent troops to Taiwan surpasses this bullying threshold. 

China’s peripheral military behavior around the region, especially vis-a-vis Taiwan, has only added to its legitimate sense of urgency.  The live-fire conflict between India and China in May of 2020 confirms Beijing’s acceptance of applying kinetic force to accomplish its policy objectives. This activity throughout the Indo-pacific theatre adds credibility to the widely pervasive concept within the French military of hypothèse d’engagement majeur or hypothesis of major engagement (HEM). Given the belief in the French ranks of the arrival of HEM, Paris could show some leeway in assuaging Canberra’s fears of Beijing and taking all possible measures to secure their national interests.  

Therefore, the deal to swap 12 conventional attack submarines for eight nuclear-powered ones is a no brainer for Australia, and a decision any fearful country would pursue. In addition to the prospect of nuclear propulsion, add-ons including cruise, hypersonic, as well as precision-strike missile technology are significant. These new capacities not only upgrade existing capabilities but are transformational in how Australia can project power beyond their immediate borders.

AUKUS is the latest example of Australia’s ultra-proactive approach to bolster national defenses that seamlessly connects with its diplomatic efforts.  The resurgence of the Quad format, and the recent in-person meeting of national leaders in Washington, is confirmation of their collective skepticism towards China and willingness to support each other with action, not just rhetoric. Underlying the Quad is Australia’s membership in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing group that bring further expertise and assistance. The conclusion of the “Two Michaels” crisis between Canada and China, will yield important lessons for all members when it comes to assessing Beijing’s future use of hostage diplomacy. 

With the new AUKUS submarines estimated delivery in 2040, three-fourths of the Quad membership will be fielding nuclear-powered submarines. In due time, the submarines will allow Australia to play a more prominent role and offset Chinese presence throughout the western Pacific. The impending change in regional balance of power produces two major consequences. It forces Chinese military planners to devote more assets to their backyard and gives them serious food for thought if their current wolf warrior posture and overreliance on hard power is advancing their goals.  

Due to China’s excessive aggressiveness, Australia and its allies were forced to respond in kind to the great detriment of Chinese strategic objectives.  AUKUS is another signal under the Biden administration that it is steadfast about pushing back against Chinese designs on the international system and is willing to strike bespoke deals to elevate partner militaries. The long game of this American strategy seeks to overwhelm China on multiple military fronts in concert with diplomatic pressure to persuade them to scale down their aggressiveness. 

By extension, this would reinstall more predictability to the Indo-Pacific and cool the current tensions that seem to escalate on a near-daily basis. These measures should surely be welcomed by the French, whose regional territories would profit from greater stability in the region without Paris having to do any of the dangerous heavy lifting. Upon reflection, the prospect of this optimal scenario seems unlikely to have transpired if Australia had opted for the French submarine package opening the HEM door.

The actions by AUKUS to close Australia’s capability gap with China burn at the French expense. Despite this, the potential savory aftertaste in the Indo-Pacific in the future will be worth the pain now.

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