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France raises an AUKUS fracas

A new security pact upset a U.S. ally but may strengthen Western defenses against China

President Joe Biden meets with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

France raises an AUKUS fracas

At the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Tuesday, President Joe Biden promised that the United States would strengthen its alliances. Missing from the audience: President Emmanuel Macron of France—a country that is the United States’ oldest ally.

Last week, Macron recalled France’s ambassador from Washington, an unprecedented move protesting the United States’ new security agreement with the United Kingdom and Australia, a pact known as AUKUS.

After a Wednesday phone call between Biden and Macron, the French president agreed to return the diplomat to Washington next week. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken met with his French counterpart, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, to discuss a plan to rebuild trust between the two nations. Meanwhile, the security pact has written a bigger role for Australia in the U.S. defense strategy against Chinese aggression.

Through AUKUS, Britain and the United States plan to help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines, which offer better range and speed than traditional diesel-electric subs. The countries will also share artificial intelligence and cyberdefense information, all aimed at improving defense capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, a region of the Indian and Pacific oceans that borders China.

The French complained that they received little warning of the AUKUS pact before its public announcement. Le Drian called the move “a stab in the back,” and French officials chastised the United States for taking an “America first” posture.

The European ally is particularly rankled by how the formation of AUKUS canceled a $60 billion–plus contract with Australia to buy traditional diesel-electric submarines from a French company.

French Defense Ministry spokesman Hervé Grandjean ripped AUKUS on Twitter, arguing that France could have provided submarines a decade sooner than Australia will obtain them through AUKUS. “That’s a long time when you see how fast China is militarizing,” Grandjean wrote.

Brent Sadler, a naval warfare expert at the Heritage Foundation, agreed with Grandjean on that point but noted that the French contract offered only submarines. AUKUS includes support for developing infrastructure and training sailors to maintain and operate the subs. Once Australia can host nuclear submarines, American or British subs could operate from its shores. Sadler emphasized, though, that the pact risks damaging the reputations of the U.S. and British nuclear submarine programs if Australia, under their training, fails to properly maintain and operate any nuclear submarines.

The new pact could help the United States and its allies counter an increasingly aggressive Chinese military in the Indo-Pacific. In response to the AUKUS announcement, China accused the countries of fostering a “Cold War mentality.”

But Cleo Paskal, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, pointed out that China has already attacked Australia’s economy with harsh tariffs over several disputes, including Australia’s questioning of human rights abuses in China. She said AUKUS strengthens Australia’s choice not to bow to Chinese pressure.

George Friedman, chairman of Geopolitical Futures, echoed the importance of Australia finding powerful allies to counter Chinese aggression.

“Australia must have a relationship with a power that can block China and that has an imperative to do so,” he wrote. “France has limited interests in the Pacific and certainly no interest or ability to wage an extended war there.”

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.


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