The formation of the trilateral security partnership AUKUS and the subsequent cancellation of a billion-dollar submarine deal – also described as the “contract of the century” – has changed the dynamics of France’s relations with Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). The situation, described as a betrayal and a “stab in the back”, which came at the expense of France, has resulted in a lack of trust. This has not only created an uncertain future for France-AUKUS relations but present wider challenges and especially for France and its strategy to tackle the changing geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific. However, given that their interests are embedded in economic and security concerns, their use of the values of democracy and freedom as a driving force to maintain a rules-based order and their shared concern regarding China’s growing coercive assertiveness, it makes sense for these Indo-Pacific powers to work together in the region.
While AUKUS seeks to preserve security and peace in the Indo-Pacific region, its emergence has caused severe implications. The abrupt cancellation of the deal – which was pivotal to France’s Indo-Pacific strategy – in favor of a deal for nuclear-powered with US and UK was a political and financial blow for France. Consequently, it caused a diplomatic rift between France and its Western partners and signaled a division in transatlantic partnership. While France and the US have tried to put the matter behind them (as seen in the France-US joint statement in October 2021), the incident no doubt impacted their strategic calculus and unveiled persisting gaps in their thinking. Yet, where possible, cooperation will be key for the partners to effectively achieve shared objectives.
Factoring the French Interest
The values of freedom, democracy, and the desire to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific constitute the cornerstone of the strategic views– as seen in France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2018, Australia’s Defense Strategic Update in 2020, the UK’s Global Britain in 2021 and in the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy in 2022 – to support a rules-based international order and preserve the freedom of navigation in the region. Drawing upon this shared vision, it identifies the possible key areas in which a partnership can occur. Such opportunities arise most notably in the maritime security domain and joint defense outreach to regional powers via joint exercises. Over the course of the past decade, China’s assertiveness, and unilateral actions in the region, particularly in the East and South China Sea, has provoked robust reactions from Western powers, including France, Australia, the UK, and the US. As a response to the rising tensions, like minded countries in Indo-Pacific have been sending naval ships to the area to uphold the rights under the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Such examples are the French-led joint exercise with the QUAD in April 2021 and the joint exercise with the naval forces from Australia, the UK, the US, and Japan in October 2021. As China continues to ignore the international law and make territorial claims, it is vital to strengthen the ties between France and AUKUS as that could become a balance towards China and uphold the international order under UNCLOS. Such partnership could further function as a support to states who lack the resources to protect themselves against China and its coercive measures.
Furthermore, with overseas territories and the possession of the second largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world, France has a unique geo-strategic position in the Indo-Pacific. As this provides territorial expertise, France can serve as a vital partner to AUKUS in its pursuit of enhancing joint capabilities and interoperability with a focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities. In the same vein, AUKUS presents a viable option for France to provide extensive military, through their significant activity in Asian Security via the Five Eyes, and through the US and Australia’s participation in the QUAD and ANZUS, and financial support in the Indo-Pacific. France and AUKUS can intensity efforts to protect and uphold international norms and security cooperation and furthermore tackle other rising challenges such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, stronger France-AUKUS ties could pave the way for the rest of Europe to enter the Indo-Pacific and would signal unity rather than a split among Western allies.
The Vitality of ASEAN and Beyond
Next, ASEAN emerges as an important strategic partner because of it dynamic economic role in the region. France’s and AUKUS’s desire to strengthen cooperation with the bloc is another point that is reflected in their interests as they put a strong emphasis on the centrality of ASEAN. However, a key hindrance AUKUS faces is mixed response from ASEAN, especially powers likeIndonesia that are worried about an arms race right at their borders and Malaysia who fears an increasing aggressive behavior of other powers, especially in the South China Sea. As these concerns are not shared across the ASEAN bloc, it shows the inability for the bloc to act as on voice. On the contrary, France already maintains a close relationship with ASEAN through their development partnership, and as the EU-ASEAN relation has progressed into a ‘strategic partnership’ and along with France’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) during the first half of 2022 highlights another key area in which the nation can be an essential partner. Indeed, France’s position offers a possibility to create a platform to bring together ASEAN and AUKUS for a dialogue.
Finally, the emerging overlap of partnerships in the region reflect yet another reason to amplify cooperation between France and AUKUS. For example, both France and the UK has had 2+2 meetings with Japan with the purpose to enhance their individual cooperation in terms of security and defense as well as preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific. More specifically, the UK and Japan agreed to strengthen cooperation between Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the British Royal Navy, and the France-Japan partnership put an emphasis on the importance of their “exceptional partnership” and further confirmed the continuance of joint training and exercises in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, the US and Japan confirmed their partnership and further agreed to continue to advocate “security, peace and prosperity” in the region. Recently, in the beginning of this year, both Australia and Japan signed a defence and security agreement focusing on the growing security challenges in the changing geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific. Other similar partnerships that are in place are the trilateral dialogue between India-France-Australia, the UK-ASEAN Dialogue Partnership, and the QUAD.
However, the primary challenge lies in the France-Australia relationship. On the one hand, the trust has been broken. On the other hand, it can be repaired as seen in the France-US experience, in which they were able to reaffirm their bilateral and transatlantic cooperation post AUKUS. In the long-run, France needs to settle the dispute and separate the emotions from the strategy. Australia is an important neighbor to France’s overseas territories in the South Pacific. There is a longstanding defence relationship between them that stretch back to the first and second world war. Before AUKUS, Australia was seen as a key contribution to France in the Indo-Pacific. The truth is that France and AUKUS share a similar set of interests and partners which mostly overlap in the Indo-Pacific region and therefore it is essential for France and AUKUS to navigate current tensions and work together. France should welcome the shared interests and possibilities that comes with the AUKUS alliance, which will further have a significant contribution to France’s own strategy in the Indo-Pacific.