France and the United States have a long tradition of friendship and mutual collaboration against external threats. French military aid and diplomatic support were critical to victory in the American wars of independence, and US soldiers gave their lives for the liberation of France from Nazi occupation.
No wonder, therefore, that the abrupt announcement of the formation of a strategic alliance (Aukus) between Washington, London and Canberra and the cancellation of a multibillion-dollar contract between France and Australia for the construction of twelve conventional submarines caused great and deep indignation disappointment in Paris, who compared it to “a stab in the back”.
The decision was negotiated in secret and without prior consultation with France and NATO allies. The United States and the United Kingdom have pledged to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines using their own technology, considered superior to the French. The main military advantages of nuclear submarines are speed, the ability to remain underwater for much longer periods, and their more difficult detection by potential adversaries.
The agreement also includes the artificial intelligence and cyber security sectors. According to the three Aukus members, the new Australian submersibles will not be armed with atomic missiles.
The joint statement affirms the intention to “promote security and prosperity” in the region and does not mention any other powers. It seems obvious, however, that the agreement is primarily intended to contain Chinese expansion.
Indeed, in recent years China has been increasing the power of the naval arm of its armed forces and building artificial islands in areas of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Its navy now holds the largest number of units, including aircraft carriers and submarines equipped with nuclear weapons. Beijing reacted to the announcement by accusing the three partners of cultivating a Cold War mentality and acting according to “ideological prejudices”.
Although the announcement has taken the international community by surprise, it means, in practice, the concrete manifestation of the orientation already advocated by then President Barack Obama as a “pivot”, or turning, towards Asia, to the consternation of his allies in Europe. The decision may in fact come to strengthen the arguments in favor of establishing defensive pacts exclusively European.
The announcement once again demonstrates that countries place their interests above considerations of historic friendship. It also shows that Asia is today the region of the world where the main geostrategic dispute takes place and that China is clearly identified as the main competitor of the United States in the international arena.
Many of its consequences, however, are yet to come, including with regard to the scope and application of the international norms in force, especially those derived from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Such norms seek to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, but recognize the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including for propulsion of military vessels.
Brazil — and now Australia — are currently the only countries not equipped with atomic weapons with concrete projects for the development of nuclear-powered submarines, unlike those that already have this type of submarine — China, United States, France, United Kingdom and Russia , in addition to India— and possess nuclear arsenals.