US, Australia pact, France
US-Australia pact, known as Aukus, will see Australia being given the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines. The move thwarted a multibillion-dollar deal France had signed with Australia. Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

During the days of Donald Trump’s erratic reign, it was quite normal to see day in and day out a crisis in the relationship with US’ traditional allies in Europe. The former President adopted a strict ‘America First’ policy that not only angered Washington allies but also raised questions about America’s leading role in a theoretically more globalised, multilateral world.

Joe Biden was supposed to be different. He rode to the White House on the slogan of multilaterism and “restoring US leadership” on the world stage. The relationship with Europe, he said, has been strong for decades and will remain a key fundamental of US foreign policy.

However, it didn’t take long before Biden stabbed France in the back. “We have a crisis,” a French official told a media briefing on Friday. Here is what happened.

Australia was supposed to buy $90 billion worth of military submarines from France — 12 of them — to shore up its capabilities in an increasingly tense area. The deal was signed in 2016. The two countries, normally good friends, met regularly to finalise the contract and the technical specification.

The latest meeting was held on Wednesday, Sep. 15, just few hours before the Australians announced publicly that they are scrapping the French deal in favour of a new deal- nuclear powered submarines from the US.

The French were shocked. They were “betrayed” by Australia, according to Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drianm who two weeks ago held “optimistic” talks with Australian officials on the deal progress. On Friday, France angrily took the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassadors to the United States and Australia “for consultations.”

France didn’t take that step even at the lowest point in its relationship with the US during the Trump days when the former president frequently made fun of French leader Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders.

The French minister Le Drian said recalling the envoys was “justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements” made by Australia and US of the cancellation of the French submarines deal.

A French diplomat told the Associated Press that the whole thing raises “a strategic question concerning the very nature of the relationship between Europe and the United States about the Indo-Pacific strategy”.

The real show

A crisis? Certainly. However, the French anger is not the main story. The deal cancellation is actually a sideshow that somehow overshadowed the real show- the security partnership pact for the Indo-Pacific signed on Wednesday by the US, Britain and Australia. The US submarines deal, which led to the cancellation of the French contract, is part of the new strategic alliance. It is an important part of it, but it is not the main thing.

Biden had opposed Trump’s ‘America First’ policy as isolationist, reckless and offensive to traditional allies. However, he started off on the wrong foot economically with his plan to increase the interest rate and phase out the financial incentives related to the Covid-19 impact.

Those decisions led to slower growth and uncertainty about the economic recovery that began in the last few months of the Trump presidency. The Afghanistan debacle added fuel to the criticism that the Biden’s administration is naive and weak despite the so- called dream team of foreign policy experts the president has assembled in his cabinet.

And that is why the Australia story is important. In an attempt to prove his tough- guy credentials, Biden is going after the obvious target- China. And the US moves against China is ushering a cold war, Beijing has warned. The new security pact’s main goal is confronting the growing Chinese influence in that region.

For the past two decades, US policy experts have been warning of an increased tension between the US and Russia that could lead to a new cold war. Until recently, few expected that cold war will actually be waged against the upcoming leading world power, China.

Trump tried to slow down the Chinese economic and technological advances by slapping unliteral sanctions on who’s who in the Chinese tech industry. He started what is now known as the US- China trade war.

In response to what Trump described as “China’s unfair economic policies,” the US began in 2018 a series of punitive actions including new tariffs, restrictions on China’s access to high- tech US products, restrictions on US investment in China’s tech industry.

Biden victory in the 2020 elections raised the hopes of the US business community that Trump’s anti- China policy would be scrapped, and the new administration would restore trade ties with Beijing.

However, what began as a trade war has developed under a new president desperate to improve his image into a cold war, “a battle between the utility of democracies in the twenty-first century and autocracies,” in the words of President Biden. And the first shot in this battle was the security pact with the UK and Australia.

Biden calls the pact and the US nuclear submarines deal “the biggest strategic step that Australia has taken in generations.” China called it “old cold war mentality.”

The new cold war has officially begun. France meanwhile was just caught in the crossfire.