French break-up a blow to Biden’s China-focused alliance rebuilding By Reuters
By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – European capitals celebrated a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June, as President Joe Biden’s top diplomat cracked jokes in French in Paris, posed for selfies with French youth and spoke at length about revitalizing the transatlantic relationship.
After four years of Trump’s “America First” campaign, U.S. relations with Europe have been in turmoil. The country was often left behind by policy decisions and hiccups that often blindsided European nations.
Washington now finds itself in unprecedented diplomatic turmoil with France, less than three months following Blinken’s repair tour. The crisis stems from a trilateral partnership with Britain to provide Australia with nuclear submarines. It also reneged on a $40 million contract that was intended for French-designed vessels.
France was furious, declaring that the new agreement had been made behind their backs and using language rarely used in public statements between allies. They called it “brutal”, “stab in the back” and “brutal”.
The French government went even further and recalled its Australian and Washington ambassadors on Friday. It also accused the Biden administration for acting in the same way as Trump when it pushed Paris aside.
Analysts warn that the crisis is much more than a commercial one and one of trust. Although U.S. officials believe it will be over soon, the damage it does to Europe’s alliance and to France could last a lifetime. In addition, the incident casts doubt on Washington’s unity against China.
French diplomats claimed they were first informed of the deal by Australian media shortly before Wednesday’s official announcement. However, Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minster insisted that he had already made it clear to Emmanuel Macron in June about his intention to cancel the agreement.
From the French point of view, however, this U.S. action is a blatant violation of what Biden’s administration promised in June, when he pledged a return back to multilateralism as well as close cooperation and partnership with allies. Europe plays an integral part of that.
Benjamin Haddad from the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center said that this makes Europeans realise that Trump’s tweets and scandals are not an accident, but a sign of a greater shift away Europe.
Why not invite the EU’s key player in the region to join the Biden administration in trying to unite Europeans around a transatlantic front against Chinese assertiveness?
Many see more clumsy policies by Biden’s government, especially after his chaotic ending to America’s decade-long war in Afghanistan. European countries complained that they were not properly consulted about it.
A French diplomat stated that the new “America First” opus was just like Afghanistan. It is also poorly designed and executed.
ATTEMPTS TO SOOTH FRENCH ANGER
Blinken has attempted to sooth French anger, calling France a vital and long-standing ally in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, and the White House and State Department quickly issued placatory statements after Paris recalled its ambassadors.
Washington said that it hopes to resume discussions at the highest level on this matter in the days ahead, as well as during next week’s United Nations General Assembly.
David Bell, Princeton University’s history professor, stated that precedent showed the crisis would end eventually.
According to Bell, the French seemed “very annoyed”, and they displayed that anger in a “fairly dramatic” fashion. He also recalled previous high-tension moments, such as France withdrawing from NATO Command in the 1960s and its refusal to participate in the U.S. backed invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Bell said that diplomat relations were not suspended. At some point, the ambassadors should be sent back. Bell noted that Macron’s gesture is ahead of an uncertain re-election campaign next year.
He said that Macron was trying to “rewaken the Gaullist tradition French independence” through foreign policy.
WEAKENING INDO-PACIFIC FRONT
While the NATO allies might well find ways to recover from what some see as the worst diplomatic crisis in their history, experts warn of serious harm to Biden’s broader China strategy.
While the trilateral submarine agreement should help the United States and allies to combat growing Chinese power, the potential damage from France’s alienation could be greater.
Francois Heisbourg is senior adviser for Europe at International Institute for Strategic Studies. “China must be laughing all of the way to bank.” “They are likely to eliminate Europe’s possible presence along with the U.S. within the Indo-Pacific.”
Although stronger U.S. – Australia ties could concern China’s government, France is the EU’s largest military power and has urged a tough line on China. While other EU countries like Germany seem to be more concerned with not disturbing China’s business ties, France insists that China must be dealt with harshly.
“There is a downside for China, but the upside I think is greater – the notion that Europe is essentially going to stay in the wings and not play an active role in the Indo-Pacific as a whole,” Heisbourg said.
France may narrow its focus and concentrate more on the Indo-Pacific, Heisbourg said. This would be in contrast to China’s wider pushback.
Just a few days after the submarine agreement was made, the European Union presented its formal strategy for increasing its Indo-Pacific presence to counter China. Heisbourg warned that France is now in a worse position than before, and there’s a higher chance the effort to counter China will fail or be abandoned altogether.
Josep Borrell from the EU Foreign Policy chief said “We must survive by ourselves, as other do,” in reference to Macron’s “strategic independence”.
Other analysts agree that the West will benefit from the need to confront Beijing.
Greg Poling, Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said that “the increasing level of global concern about China is what lifts all boats.”
I’m confident there will be some rough months ahead but Paris will get past it, because it is in its strategic interest to do so.