By Shaun Tandon
Forging a new three-way alliance with Britain and Australia to the anger of the French, US President Joe Biden has again made brutally clear — his top international priority, overriding all else, will be facing China.
Under the alliance christened with the acronym AUKUS, Australia will be the only country other than Britain to have access to US technology to build nuclear-powered submarines — which could deploy in contested waters where Beijing is assertively exerting its claims.
The announcement infuriated China but also France, which lost a contract to build conventional submarines for Australia that was worth Aus$50 billion (HK$284 billion) at the time of signing.
The French, like many Europeans, had celebrated when Biden defeated the avowedly unilateralist Donald Trump and declared that the United States would prioritize working with allies.
In language that would have been striking even in the Trump era, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced the “stab in the back” by the United States.
Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe center at the Atlantic Council think tank, said that Biden was showing “a kind of continuity with Trump’s ‘America First.'”
“The priority is competition with China. Everything else is a distraction,” he said.
Afghanistan also deprioritized
AUKUS was unveiled weeks after Biden withdrew remaining US troops from Afghanistan, prompting unusually strong statements from European allies who decried the swift return to power of the Taliban.
Biden had long pushed to end the 20-year war and has repeatedly said that Afghanistan was a costly sideshow to China, which his administration has described as the primary US rival in the 21st century.
“The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China,” Biden said in a speech after the last US troops left.
Biden took office declaring “America is back” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a French-speaking diplomatic veteran, devoted much of his early travel to Europe, a marked shift in tone from Trump’s needling of NATO nations as freeloaders on US security.
Biden’s early efforts were meant to “turn the page on the Trump years and show a difference,” Haddad said.
When Biden attended a NATO summit, the Western alliance for the first time took up China. Haddad said that Europeans also had assets in technology and other areas that make them first-tier partners.
“But on the strategic plan, Europe is in the midst of falling to the second rung,” he said.
The new alliance came despite the Irish-American Biden’s past perceived distance from Britain, whose divorce from the European Union was seen as a strategic setback by policymakers from Biden’s Democratic Party.
Walter Lohman, director of the Asian studies center at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that the French submarine deal had been plagued by cost overruns and was becoming a “disaster” for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“This was a way to kill it artfully in the context of something grander,” Lohman said.
“Despite all the heart palpitations over what this means for the alliance and where if fits in the history of US-French relations, at the end of the day the French are big boys. They understand this business and they play this business on arms sales better than anyone.”
But Lohman said the United States needed to find ways in its Asia strategy to keep integrating France, a Pacific power which has stepped up information-sharing with Washington in recent years.
“We can continue to move forward with the French but with the Brits we’re already hand in glove and same with the Aussies. We’ve worked so closely together and we can bring that to bear in the Indo-Pacific,” Lohman said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that while Australia has a solid record against nuclear proliferation, the submarine deal could raise longer-term questions.
The United States will likely need to power the submarines with weapons-grade highly enriched uranium, which Australia does not produce and which both nations have vowed to control.
“When the United States, which proclaims itself to be a non-proliferation leader, continues to bend established rules and principles on non-proliferation in order to assist allies, it has a corrosive effect on the rules-based international order that this administration claims to support,” Kimball said.
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