During the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the complaint by 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 agreement on submarines with France – dispels all doubt.
Whether the failure to warn France of the impending deal is an unprofessional diplomatic blunder or a sign of contempt for the European ally of the United States is less important than the likely reality: when it does deals with China, the United States neither appreciates nor trusts its European partners.
It is widely accepted that the goal of the security agreement is to contain China’s growing 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 the use of retaliatory measures.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its economic interdependence with China, Australia is demanding security guarantees from the United States. Unsurprisingly, Beijing interprets the deal as a showdown, accusing the United States of using an “obsolete, zero-sum Cold War mentality.”
The Biden administration is moving forward in reshaping 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 focus on Europe’s relations with the Indo-Pacific region. They concern Europe’s complicated and conflicted relations 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 relations in the region, which France, a longtime player in the Indo -pacific, had advocated.
In typical Brussels fashion, the Indo-Pacific strategy is global – ranging from climate to maritime safety, from trade to sustainability – and includes 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 repeatedly used by EU High Representative Josep Borrell at the press conference to launch the strategy. Shortly after being presented on September 16, the EU strategy looked like a lone dove singing in a choir of hawks.
Whether this approach is interpreted as reflecting the EU’s deeper instinct for de-escalation and dialogue or as a cover for the bloc’s trade interests in doing business with China, it does not fit the vision. from Washington of China as the strategic threat of 21st century. This is probably the only issue on which there is a national bipartisan consensus.
Rather than a pivot towards Asia, which during the years of presidency of Barack Obama made the Europeans fear their uselessness, the AKUS indicates that all the means are used to contain China, that Europe wants 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 have finally resulted in negotiations of no. -proliferation and 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 biggest threat.st century. It also limits the space for different approaches, such as bottom-up or sub-regional attempts to look at security outside 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 procrastination on foreign policy, its failure to invest in its security, its desperate divisions between the member states, and above all its positioning vis-à-vis China – between ambivalence and commercialism – have they undermined its credibility and its reliability in Washington’s eyes?
There is a deeper risk for Europe behind the AUKUS conundrum.
New pressures to confront China risk upsetting the precarious balance between transatlanticists and supporters of strengthening Europe’s autonomy in international affairs.
In 2003, the slogan of the George W. Bush administration “you are either with us or against us”, used to rally support for the military intervention in Iraq, caused deep dissension in Europe, France, the ‘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 the EU institutions have pushed for greater investment in the EU’s security capacity, with new defense initiatives announced in the State of the Union address by the President of the Union. European Commission Ursula von der Leyen just one day before the AUKUS debacle.
Events such as the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and the launch of AUKUS fuel these arguments. Yet 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.
Even more uncertainties over transatlantic relations, combined with pressure to support China, risk upsetting the precarious balance between Europe and NATO. It should not be in the best interests of the United States or the Europeans.