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22 September 2021updated 23 Sep 2021 6:41pm

How Aukus upended Emmanuel Macron’s grand plan

France was furious at its exclusion from the new alliance – but its posturing about strategic independence from the US offers nothing for Canberra.

By Helen Thompson

For France, the Aukus defence pact between Australia, the UK and US announced on 15 September reveals the stark implications of the EU’s geopolitical hollowness. Shocked that it was omitted from the new alliance, and furious that its Naval Group has lost a multibillion-euro contract to supply Australia with attack submarines, Paris received muted public support from other EU countries. 

EU members have limited shared geopolitical interests, and are divided between those, such as Poland, for whom Russia is the primary concern and those, led by France, that are focused on the Middle East and North Africa. Only France has substantial interests in the Indo-Pacific, not least because of the 1.6 million French citizens who live in France’s overseas territories in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Angela Merkel’s foreign policy has only aggravated France’s predicament over the EU’s geopolitical lightness of being. She has done little to reverse the decline in German military power since 1989 and has been unwilling to contemplate any alternative to Nato for Europe’s security. She has presided over deep integration between parts of the German economy and China, such as the relationship between Deutsche Telekom and Huawei. 

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It is these Franco-German differences on Europe’s security that have prevented the EU from developing a serious collective approach towards China in the Indo-Pacific. The EU’s policy towards China itself is constructive ambiguity – Beijing is simultaneously a systemic rival, an economic competitor and a diplomatic partner. In practice, the EU has regarded China as a commercial competitor in the (still unratified) Comprehensive Agreement on Investment and a partner on climate change. This approach reflects German rather than French preferences. Indeed, there is little evidence that Merkel regards China as a systemic rival. While France has a substantial military presence in the Indo-Pacific aimed at containing China, Germany does not. 

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French rage over Aukus is understandable. Macron has said that a Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis should be pivotal in the Indo-Pacific, along with French naval detachments: in April, France led a five-country naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal that also included the US. Aukus has brutally upended this Indo-Pacific strategy.

But Aukus also follows from Macron’s own European ambitions. For the French president, the commitment in the Indo-Pacific is not just a matter of relations with China or of protecting French citizens. It is also a means to advancing European strategic autonomy from the US. Speaking prior to the G7 and Nato summits in June, Macron said that he was committed to seeing “Europeans remain united and attentive to their shared sovereignty, and that we also have… independence when it comes to our strategy with regard to China”. In a three-way call between Macron, Merkel and Xi Jinping in July, the Chinese leader echoed Macron, saying he hoped that Europe could achieve strategic independence from the US. 

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But French posturing about strategic autonomy offers nothing for Canberra. Australia is an Indo-Pacific island and, after China imposed bans and restrictions on its exports in 2020 in response to its support for demands for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, its government has reason to see China as a threat. When in 2018 Macron lauded the Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis, he said it was  “nothing against vis-à-vis China, and in reaction to the Chinese rise”. Given his aim to hedge between an economic relationship with Beijing and a security relationship with the US, the Australian prime minister at the time, Malcolm Turnbull, could accept that. But the serving PM, Scott Morrison, apparently cannot: the opportunity to conduct military operations in the South China Sea has become a core security interest. Australia needs the American strength in the Pacific, not for it to be diluted in dreams of European strategic autonomy that are shared in Beijing.

Macron acts as if his loose talk of European strategic autonomy does not have consequences. Taking time to consider how the world looks from Canberra or Warsaw rather than from Paris is not his style. Instead, he seems ready to double down on De Gaulle’s idea of French-led European military sovereignty, as if Gaullism had not already crashed in the late 1960s – a much simpler time when China was but a side-story.

This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play