The birth of the three-way defence pact between Australia, Britain and the United States – known as AUKUS – has led the one of the worst inter-allied crises in living history. Yet, the stated claims of the protagonists need not have led to such an outcome.
The aims of AUKUS
Australia, first in the order of entry onto the AUKUS stage, was initially pursuing two contradictory aims. The first, of an industrial nature, was to ensure the success of the French-designed ‘Attack’ submarine programme, to replace the existing ‘Collins’ class.
The other objective was strategic: Australia had concluded that the rapid rise of the Chinese threat called for nuclear powered submarines, and apparently, the earlier the better. Canberra had also come to the view that the defence relationship with the US needed to be strengthened.
This conundrum did not, however, entail a catastrophic outcome: France understands that changing strategic circumstances call for new approaches.
The logical policy would have been for Australia to determine whether France would have an interest, or not, in joining a new defence arrangement and whether France, which has been producing nuclear powered submarines for more than half a century, would be in a position to help in such a framework.
If the French answers had been negative, that would have been that. The contractual negotiations to defray the cancellation of the ‘Attack’ programme would inevitably have been tough, but would not have led to an alliance-splitting outcome between four major western powers.
Given France’s assertive Indo-Pacific policy, there are reasons to suppose the answers would actually have been positive; indeed, and much to Beijing’s displeasure, a French nuclear submarine had already sailed in the contested waters of the South China Sea a few months earlier .
Britain, as the middle-man between Australia and the US, has been less vocal about its aims. However, the UK interest in expanding its strategic footprint in the Indo-Pacific region was a priori legitimate, as was its eagerness to garner new activity for its naval nuclear business.
As befits a superpower, the US interest is of both a regional and global nature. In regional terms, it makes good sense to extend Australia’s reach by providing it with nuclear powered submarines and land-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles.
At the global level, President Biden wants to organise a coalition of democracies to face an increasingly assertive China, including the EU with its second-to-none single market. It was decided earlier this year to create a US-EU Council to coordinate policy vis-à-vis China’s challenges in the key battlefield of technology.
The date for the first meeting, in Pittsburgh, had been set for 29 September. These goals were legitimate, and there was no prima facie reason for the US to view them as other than mutually reinforcing.
None of this was unmentionable in the company of France: after all its Indo-Pacific strategy was largely inspired by Australia’s, and was announced in 2018 at the Shangri La dialogue in Singapore the same year as the US did, and in the same spirit.
Of course, France is also a key member of the EU: the EU’s emerging Indo-Pacific doctrine and policy against China’s predatory practices show substantial input from France.
Yet we now face an inter-allied firestorm. Working back in time, the analogies that come to mind include the Iraq war, the withdrawal of France from NATO’s command structure, the Skybolt decision, or even the Suez crisis in 1956.
Suez signalled the end of imperial power and status, and it continues to provide the framework respective strategic positionings of Britain and France vis-à-vis the US. It is unclear that he current brouhaha will lead to the same lasting consequences .
What is unarguable is that AUKUS shares with Suez, and Suez alone, the fact that several allies decided to connive in utter secrecy to the detriment of another major ally.
In 1956, London and Paris, along with Tel Aviv, kept a US president, who was in the closing stages of a general election campaign, in the dark.
In 2021, Canberra, London and Washington operated against Paris. In both cases, the secret was quite well kept.
Under these close to laboratory perfect conditions, the same phenomena were observed in 2021 as in 1956.
The first, and the most spectacular, is the catastrophic loss of trust. This secrecy was focussed on core allies, not against sworn enemies.
When Churchill stated that ‘truth is so precious, that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lie’ he pointedly prefaced the remark with the words ‘In wartime’ – and wartime was World War Two.
Another, no less toxic effect, less visible because it is itself cloaked in secrecy, is that cabal-sized settings lead to less than optimal decision making.
Secrecy between allies naturally precludes any attempt to learn whether the excluded ally is ready to review its own options. By limiting the number of people involved, secrecy limits the range of expertise and the scope of interdepartmental policy reviews.
My understanding is that the number of Americans vetted for AUKUS was substantially smaller than the number of passengers in an off-peak London Underground carriage.
The rarefied atmosphere of secrecy, rather than intent, may have led the US to a regionally focussed outcome rather than one taking into account America’s global interests. Unfortunately, the outcome remains the same. And because of the secrecy, we don’t really know.
One would wish to suggest here a policy of repair, and indeed of the new rapprochement which the strategic situation requires. An increasingly aggressive China is putting the ‘Lenin’ back into its ‘market Leninism’: this calls for more western unity, not the splits created by AUKUS.
In the current atmosphere of mistrust, a period of cooling down in terms of public statements is probably the best than one can hope for.
By François Heisbourg, special adviser at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, a Paris-based think tank.