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What does Washington want from Aukus?

Why Joe Biden's administration decided it was worth risking French wrath.

By Emily Tamkin

On Thursday 16 September, a new coalition was announced. Awkwardly named Aukus, the partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States will bring together the technological and security expertise of the three countries and develop a nuclear-powered submarine in Australia, to deter China from engaging in any hostile behaviour.  

The move was met with excitement in London and Canberra. For Australia, it comes at a time that Chinese aggression in the South China Sea has become an increasing cause for concern. For the UK, it could be a path forward for an ambitious Global Britain.  

As Rory Medcalf, professor and head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, wrote for the New Statesman, “The trio have hinted at a larger commitment to one another: nothing less than a merger of military, industrial and scientific capabilities … in the new commanding heights of cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.”  

In France, meanwhile, the news of the coalition was interpretated as a diplomatic blow and was greeted with fury. Not only was France not invited to be part of the group, but Australia’s pursuit of a nuclear-power submarine means that the country has now cancelled its submarine contract with France, which was worth around AU$90bn. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the army minister Florence Parly criticised the US for sidelining an ally. Le Drian called it “a stab in the back”. France went so far as to cancel a Washington gala to celebrate the Franco-US naval alliance in protest.  

So, what was the US planning to get out of the pact? And what did it decide was worth the risk of French wrath?  

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For one thing, President Joe Biden’s administration has made clear that one of its main foreign policy priorities is positioning the US in ways that might be able to observe China’s actions. In contrast, at the G7, French President Emmanuel Macron was reportedly one of the world leaders who differed with Biden on the approach to take with China, saying that the G7 was not intended to be a hostile club.  

Furthermore, the idea of a separate coalition that complements other groups in which the US and France are both members is also in keeping with how Biden and his policymakers see the world. As I note in a piece this week on Biden’s China advisers, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, who are now policymakers focused on Asia in the Biden administration, in early January outlined a vision which included a variety of coalitions that would work on different issues, not one group that would deal with everything concerning China.  

There were echoes of this approach in White House spokesperson Jen Psaki’s response to questions about why the French weren’t included in the new pact: this was not the only global cooperative group, she answered, and there are indeed others that do include France. 

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Le Drian has said that the move reminds him of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. That is a fair comparison in terms of the focus on China. But in truth this is not a unilateral move, but a multilateral one, the very kind that Trump eschewed, and the very kind that Biden and his circle have been saying they wanted to make since before coming into office.  

Still, if Washington wants to work with its allies, on China or anything else, it will need to repair relations with France. The European country is too big and important — in the EU, the UN, or simply in the world — to let a wound like this fester.  

Countering China is an important priority for the Biden administration, but for the sake of the rest of its global agenda — NATO, equitable tax policy, climate change — it should treat French feelings as important, too.