Senior Researcher Security and Defense, Elcano Royal Institute
he United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have just announced a security agreement to promote stability in the Indo-Pacific region. If the irritated French reaction is anything to go by, the agreement seems designed to exclude France from its rightful role as a regional power: political snub and commercial betrayal. France claims that the surprise announcement of the agreement represents a lack of trust between allies and calls into question the reliability of the United States and the United Kingdom inside and outside NATO. For the three AUKUS countries, the agreement does not call into question their commitments to the alliances and coalitions to which they belong because they respond to a new strategic context.
France should understand the primacy of security interests because it has signed similar agreements with the UK in the past to boost European defense (St. Malo 1998) or enhance its nuclear and industrial cooperation (Lancaster House 2010), bilaterally designing the terms of the agreement before making it known to third parties. Similarly, its European partners have learned about Franco-German initiatives for European defense after it defined them, bilaterally, at meetings of the Franco-German Security and Defense Council. This type of bilateral leadership, such as that of France and Germany – ’embedded bilatelarism’ (Krotz and Schild, 2012) – from ‘in front’ are designed behind closed doors, even if later, once agreed, they can be opened to third parties.
It is national interests that led France to break the agreement reached with the UK during the Brize Norton summit in 2014 to develop the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and to change partners to develop the program with Germany in 2016. The 2017 Franco-German Council consummated the change of partner and the 2019 Council admitted new participants, for the moment Spain, to tackle the industrial adventure, while the UK has opened its Tempest program to new industrial partners. In agreements such as the above, national interests take precedence over affinities and it has not occurred to anyone to accuse France of disloyalty or to question its reliability as a strategic partner in NATO or the EU.
The AUKUS Agreement corresponds to a new generation of strategic partnerships in which national security interests coincide in order to face new challenges such as Chinese expansionism. The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia agree on the perception of China as a vital threat to the region, and have been cooperating in intelligence (Five Eyes), strategic (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Quad) and cybersecurity tasks, to which industrial and technological cooperation is now added. France has not aligned its national security interests with those of the new partnership and therefore cannot complain about not being part of it. Nor should it be surprised by the Australian cancellation because the difficulties in moving forward with the conventional submarine program with France had already been made public. While France has never shared its nuclear propulsion technology, the AUKUS agreement allows Australia exceptional (one-off) access to advanced technological, operational and industrial capabilities that enable it to improve its deterrence capability against China. If France and other NATO or EU countries wish to participate in or collaborate with the new partnership, they will have to align their security interests with those of the Pacific powers and share their deterrence measures. If they do not share their perception of China as a threat or do not wish to risk joining them, they cannot ask to be persuaded or wait for them. It is a matter of interests, nothing personal.
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