Australian contract: Stab in the back or salutary clarification ?

Forbidden City, Beijing ©️PP

               Australia’s reversal of the contract with France for the manufacture and maintenance of 12 conventional-powered submarines came as a surprise. This decision will not fail to have, beyond the economic and industrial aspects, important geo-strategic consequences.

The blow was strongly felt by the French authorities and the Minister of Foreign Affairs – who was Minister of Defence at the time of the choice of DCNS in 2016 as « preferred bidder » to the detriment of Japanese and German competitors – immediately reacted by denouncing « a stab in the back ». He called it « a unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision, very similar to what Mr. Trump was doing » . For her part, the Minister of Defence considered that it was in fact, beyond the commercial aspects, a questioning without consultation of a true strategic partnership with Australia. 

Indeed, it was in February 2019 that Naval Group – heir to the Shipyards Directorate (DCNS) since 2017 – had concluded such a partnership. The issue of ownership of the technology and the extent of industrial cooperation were then dealt with directly by President Macron and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrisson, on the margins of a G20 meeting. 

Cherbourg Workshops, Naval Group/ AFP

The blow was sorely felt in the Ateliers de Cherbourg when the loss of what had been considered the « contract of the century » in arms exports was announced. The contract was estimated at $90 billion (€56 billion) for the 12 Barracuda class submarines and their maintenance for a period of 50 years. In Cherbourg, 500 people – out of a thousand already affected by the program in France and Australia – were already mobilized, including a hundred Australians without counting their families. The question of the establishment of these, including the subject of the schooling of children, had been settled for several years. But we must be positive: the order book of the Naval Group is well filled with attack submarines and launcher submarines (SNLE ) and it is rather the Australians who will have to operate reclassifications of personnel. That is now their problem.

This « Jarnac’s coup »  felt in Paris must be put into perspective. It would be surprising if the experts on the file did not record the “little music” coming from Canberra in the last months of 2019 on the theme «  the speed of change in the region has been underestimated ». These reflections are now the basis of the Australian government’s argument to suggest that the submarines that would have been built with France would not have been fast enough and stealthy or were lacking of autonomy over the advantages of nuclear propulsion. 

In fact, Australia has never approached France to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, and for a long time refused to do so because of problems such as its relationship with New Zealand. (NB: Wellington will not allow the use of its territorial waters for nuclear powered machines). Moreover, it is not certain that a favourable response would have been given to it, since France – one of the three countries with the United States and Russia to control the entire nuclear propulsion chain – has never authorized its Technic Atome group to export such technology. Regardless of the partner, the risk of proliferation cannot be minimized and the United States itself is now questioning the possibility of reducing the degree of enrichment of the equipment that will be provided to Australia.

And then, if there has been a coup de Jarnac, France is unfortunately not in a position to make the lesson after President Hollande has put an end in 2018 to a contract of 2011 to supply Russia with two ports-helicopters Mistral even though full payment had been made. Our Minister of Defence should be more measured these days on this point and remember that France’s reliability in terms of arms transfers had been seriously affected.

But the most important in the Australian decision is the geo-strategic scope. The presence of the United Kingdom in a new « marriage to three » provides clear clues since the United Kingdom – which itself had to be assisted by the United States for its submarines Astute -, does not control the entire chain of nuclear propulsion. The United States is clearly at the helm in the conclusion of the AUKUS agreement (NB: A for Australia, UK and US). Neither Japan nor South Korea have been enthusiastic about the announcement of this new alliance. Sometimes referred to in the media as « Asian NATO » , the «  trilateral security partnership » was clearly conceived as an “anti-Beijing system”. The United States has the experience in this area since it has already done so, after the Indochina war, by integrating Vietnam into its « cordon sanitaire” » around China, with the results we know… It is not certain, in this regard, that Prime Minister B. Johnson is justified in rejoicing loudly for a major contribution to the stability of the region and the world. It is not forbidden to think otherwise.

France has just been humiliated by the United States, which it has never missed, despite differences. On the contrary, we cannot mention Iraq, because the refusal of the war in 2003, together with the Russian President and the German Chancellor, was the wisest of attitudes. We see today that this disastrous operation, undertaken for spurious reasons, has destabilized the world. President Bush Jr was then Iran’s best ally to become a « threshold country »  to name just a few of its immense merits. The good words of Secretary of State A. Blinken, aiming to put some balm to the soul of the country where he grew up, are only lullabies for three-year-olds. But Paris must be positive.

In fact, the biggest surprise in this case came when a possible strategic agreement with Australia was announced in 2016 that nothing in our relations with that country in the past 40 or 50 years suggested anything. In addition to the issue of French nuclear tests in the Pacific until the decision of President Chirac in 1995, which had ignited states like Australia and New Zealand, Canberra took the lead in a crusade against Paris over New Caledonia. This culminated in the Decolonization Committee and the UN General Assembly in the late 1980s. This support for the Kanaks was not lacking in salt from a country that had annihilated almost all of its aboriginal population. The Australian coalition finally failed pitifully in New York during the vote of a resolution against France which gathered more abstentions and negative votes than votes in its favor. Under these circumstances, France has demonstrated that it enjoys networks and influence that are preserved on a global scale far beyond the opportunistic policy of a regional power.

With the trilateral agreement, Australia is not going to change its status, and there are already voices there to worry about increased dependence on Washington. The first discussions on the expected technology will last for 18 months, with the order books of the American companies Westinghouse and GE being more than filled due to the needs of renewal of the American fleet and it is likely that Canberra will wait. But it is no longer France’s problem and the clarification of its deep relationship with Australia – which is more of a confirmation – is welcome.

The most worrying aspect of the formation of AUKUS is the restoration of a « block » approach to international relations. In the Gaullian tradition, this is always what France wanted to avoid and it demonstrated it during the Cold War with its tryptic « détente, entente et coopération » and with its recognition of China in 1964. Richard Nixon – for whom Charles de Gaulle had great regard – was one of the few American Presidents to understand this policy which facilitated the achievement of peace in Vietnam. If we had kept the contract, we would have been dragged down a path of confrontation that is not ours. The Arms sales Policy must not guide the Foreign Policy, as the Middle East has shown. It must be the opposite.

The transatlantic relationship will be strongly affected by these Australian developments. From the moment when the United States clearly indicated to France their lack of confidence, the question of maintaining in the integrated military organization of NATO – an organization whose President Macron had declared that it was « in a state of brain death » – should be raised with new acuity.

The question is therefore that of the organization of the security of Europe. The speech on the Union by the President of the Commission – who spoke on the same day as the Australian announcement – particularly on the issue of the Indo-Pacific zone may have been judged below the circumstances. Similarly, the agreed discourse on a European political construction, the prerequisite of which would be the strengthening of European defence, is still only a matter of wishful thinking.

Under these conditions, what can France do? First, to maintain and even strengthen its presence in the Indo-Pacific zone. The good words of A. Blinken contradict the reality of the demeaning treatment inflicted on him and President Biden, already severely devalued after the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, can no longer be considered a credible partner.

In Europe, the withdrawal of the integrated military organization must correspond to the clarification of the relations that we thought we still had with some of our partners. France will remain a reliable partner of the Atlantic Alliance, whose reform is also not to be excluded in the medium or long term.

France will no longer necessarily be able to rely so much on the United Kingdom, with which it has long had close relations in the military field, reinforced by the Lancaster House Treaty of 2010. In a way, the AUKUS Trilateral Agreement is the first concrete expression of Brexit which remained limited since no tariffs or quotas were imposed in London under the deal of December 25, 2020.

The true nature of the Franco-German relationship must be examined at this point of reflection. It is a good tone to celebrate the Franco-German « couple » but the Elysée Treaty concluded in 1963 with Chancellor Adenauer was presented to the Bundestag for ratification preceded by a preamble that reaffirmed the primacy of the relationship with the United States. This was the DNA of many German leaders since then. It is now important that candidates for Merkel’s succession clarify their positions on these issues on the understanding that their choice is sovereign. The difficulty of the discussions on the Future Fighter System (SCAF) envisaged for the 2040 horizon is not reassuring.

But, therefore, is there not a risk of isolation for France? How, for example, to guarantee the independence of its military apparatus?  The only solution would then be the development of already large national capacities and industrial cooperation with the largest number of partners in Europe and beyond. The extension of the production chain through the development of export sales is the only way to reduce costs. The Mistral delivered to Russia would not have harmed the security of France in any way; China is not primarily perceived in Europe as a threat to its security; India is already an important client and partner; The list can be completed.

The Australian Jarnac coup, fomented with Washington, had the merit to remove many ambiguities. It will have contributed to a salutary clarification if we keep our composure and know how to draw the necessary consequences. In the end, it is even us who should have torn this « piece of paper » that represented the agreement concluded with Canberra as we would have to tear the hideous wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe to make it appear all indomitable force.

Source: france info

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