During the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the complaint of some European NATO members of insufficient consultation with the US administration may have seemed irritating. Four weeks later, the UKUS – a security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, whereby Canberra acquires American nuclear-powered submarines and cancels its submarine agreement with France – dispels any doubt. Whether failure to warn France of the impending deal was an unprofessional diplomatic error or a sign of contempt for the United States‘ The European ally is less important than the likely reality: when it comes to China, the United States neither appreciates nor trusts its European partners.
It is widely believed that the goal of the security deal is to contain China‘increasing encroachment on the region. This follows the deterioration of trade and diplomatic relations between China and Australia in which Beijing has shown little restraint in using retaliatory measures. Despite – or maybe because of – Australia’s economic interdependence with China demands security guarantees from the United States. Unsurprisingly, Beijing interprets the deal as confrontational, accusing Washington of using a “obsolete zero-sum mentality of the Cold War.“
The Biden administration is moving forward in overhauling alliances given its rivalry with China. Everything else, in this case France, comes after this overriding objective. Beyond the diplomatic fallout with Paris, it is important to reflect on the broader implications for Europe. They speak of Europe‘s relations with the Indo-Pacific region. They speak of Europe‘s complicated and conflicting relationship with China. The question is whether the EU can play a role in de-escalating geopolitical tensions. And fundamentally, they are about trust and mutual European and American perceptions about the future of the transatlantic alliance.
Ironically, the UKUS was announced on the same day as the EU‘s unveiling of an Indo-Pacific strategy for its expanding interests and relationships in the region – something that France, a long-time player in the Indo-Pacific, had pushed. Like Brussels, the Indo-Pacific strategy is global – ranging from climate to maritime safety, from trade to sustainability – and inclusive of all interested regional actors. It is aimed at other states that have an Indo-Pacific strategy, including the three AUKUS, and is open to China, with which Brussels thinks it should engage at least on climate and biodiversity.
“Cooperation, not confrontation” were the words chosen repeatedly by EU High Representative Josep Borrell at the press conference to launch the strategy. Shortly after being presented on September 16, the EU‘S strategy resembled a lone dove singing in a choir of hawks. That this approach be interpreted as reflecting the EU‘s deeper instinct for de-escalation and dialogue or like the block cover story‘s commercial interests in doing business with China, that does not match Washington‘view of China as the strategic threat of the 21st century. This is probably the only issue on which there is a national bipartisan consensus.
Rather than a pivot to Asia, which during the years of Barack Obama‘While the presidency made Europeans fear their uselessness, the UKUS points out that all means are used to contain China, whether Europe likes it or not. The means include some of the partnerships that the Biden administration has spent time fixing. This could become a missed opportunity for the US to cooperate with the EU on the Indo-Pacific. In the past, the United States and the EU have sometimes used “good cop, bad cop” tactics to deal with difficult situations, for example when European talks with Iran finally resulted in non-proliferation negotiations and the JCPOA. Similar arrangements require trust between partners and a shared game plan.
And trust is such an important issue. The diminished trust undermines the possibility of the US and the EU working together on China, at least on biodiversity and climate change, which Europe increasingly recognizes as the 21st century’s greatest threat. century. It also limits the space for different approaches, such as bottom-up or sub-regional attempts to look at security outside of the state-centered and rivalry-focused prism. Europe must now ask itself two questions. First, does the EU have the bandwidth to withstand conflicting geopolitics without getting involved? And secondly, its hesitations on foreign policy, its failure to invest in its security, its desperate divisions among member states, and above all its positioning towards China. – between ambivalence and commercialism – undermined its credibility and reliability in Washington‘the eyes ?
There is a deeper risk for Europe behind the AUKUS conundrum. New pressures towards confrontation with China risk upsetting the precarious balance between transatlanticists and supporters of strengthening Europe‘s autonomy in international affairs. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration‘slogan “you‘you are with us or against us,” used to rally support for the military intervention in Iraq, caused deep divisions in Europe, with France, Germany and the Benelux countries refusing to join the coalition. These divisions have been slow to resolve, a luxury the EU does not have in the context of rapidly evolving alliances.
France and EU institutions pushed for more investment in the EU‘s security capability, with new defense initiatives announced in the State of the Union address by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen just a day before the AKUS debacle. Events such as the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and the launch of AUKUS fuel these arguments. However, European defense cannot protect the continent. Like Australia, the economy of some European states is closely linked to that of China, but their security is inextricably linked to the United States.
The debate on strategic autonomy is tied helplessly in a false zero-sum dichotomy, according to which more Europe means less United States. In a continent where perceptions of security risks diverge depending on whether one sits in Warsaw or Lisbon, this false dichotomy has become a prison and a pretext for inaction. More uncertainties over transatlantic relationship, combined with pressure to support China, risk shattering Europe‘s and NATO‘precarious balance. It shouldn’t be in the best interests of the United States – or Europeans.
‘What the US-UK-Australia Security Pact Means for Europe‘- Comment from Rosa Balfour – Carnegie Europe.
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