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Australia Sub Deal Should Upset China, Not France

Australia Sub Deal Should Upset China, Not France

Wednesday, 22 September, 2021 - 04:45
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

Arms deals between longtime allies don’t typically make global news, let alone lead the headlines on multiple continents. But the new Aukus (Australia-UK-US) pact isn’t a garden-variety arms deal. It weaves together several compelling global story lines, from the shifting alignments in maritime Asia to Britain’s search for a new grand strategy after Brexit.

Most important, Aukus showcases the new model of multilateralism the US will need to win its competition with China — one that relies on a variety of overlapping coalitions to make Beijing’s aggression self-defeating.

The core of Aukus is the Australian government’s decision to ditch an existing deal to buy diesel-powered attack submarines from France, and instead to build nuclear-powered submarines with the US and UK Yet the agreement is about much more than subs. It will also give US air and naval forces greater access to facilities in Northern Australia, beef up Australia’s long-range strike capabilities, and expand cooperation on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and other issues.

From a US perspective, there are three big benefits. First, it will alter the regional balance of power. Deploying state-of-the-art submarines, along with an expanded suite of cruise missiles and other strike capabilities, will make Australia a more formidable military partner in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and perhaps even the Taiwan Strait. The US, meanwhile, can increasingly use northern Australia — out of range of most Chinese missiles, but still close enough to these hotspots to be operationally relevant — to diversify its options in a theater where it is far too dependent on a few vulnerable bases at Guam and elsewhere.

Second, the deal promises greater defense and technological integration. The US will allow the transfer of sensitive nuclear propulsion technology to a foreign country for the first time in generations. Through co-production of missiles and other capabilities, the defense industries of the three parties will become more closely linked. Cooperation on artificial intelligence will expand the roster of “minilateral” arrangements aimed at keeping Beijing from dominating critical technologies. Aukus will thus operationalize a basic insight: The best way of overmatching China is to combine the capabilities of the countries it threatens.

Third, Aukus shows how multilateral balancing has changed since the Cold War. President Joe Biden’s administration has argued that the US must round up a big posse to check Chinese power. Yet no single existing institution can anchor that effort, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

What is required is a more complex game of coalitions, one that assembles different combinations of countries around different issues. By building overlapping groups to address a variety of economic, security and political challenges — a strategy US officials have called, clunkily, “variable geometry” — America can weave a web of multilateral ties that ensnares Beijing wherever it pushes for advantage.

Aukus, thus, binds together three important bilateral partnerships into a more focused, trilateral approach to Indo-Pacific security. It complements other arrangements— namely the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the US) and the US-Japan alliance — that are critical to regional stability. And it starts to piece together a more global framework for responding to China’s challenge.

For that reason, the deal is a win for the UK, as well. Many observers, including me, questioned what Britain’s geopolitical value proposition would be once it bounced out of the European Union. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s answer has been to position his country as a bulwark of an emerging counter-China coalition on issues ranging from 5G technology to freedom of navigation in the western Pacific.

Left furious, alas, are the French, who responded by pulling ambassadors from Washington and Canberra and issuing some choice Gallic barbs at London. The anger is understandable: The Aukus countries did apparently deceive Paris while hatching their defense-industrial double-cross. And while some of the rhetoric — calling the decision a “stab in the back,” threatening to sabotage US-European cooperation — has been over-the-top, it highlights a real strategic problem.

The Biden administration took office pledging to restore trust with NATO allies, but it has repeatedly jilted at least some of those allies instead. The administration maintained a Covid-related travel ban on Europe even as the EU lifted its restrictions on the US (Washington belatedly announced a loosening of that policy on Monday.) Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan — and refusal to take responsibility for the subsequent collapse — alarmed European countries that fear resurgent terrorism and a new wave of migrants. Now there is a serious rift between Washington and one of the few European countries that can still plausibly call itself a global power.

The Biden administration isn’t entirely to blame for this situation. After all, a defense of the liberal order that the Europeans cherish must start with a sharper focus on the Indo-Pacific; French histrionics risk making a bad situation worse.

Yet if any counter-China coalition requires strong European participation, particularly on trade and technology, then the US can ill afford the impression that it is treating the continent as an afterthought. Washington will need a sustained repair effort in US-French relations, featuring a mixture of high-level meetings and sustained efforts to help Paris play the global role it desires — in Europe, Africa and not least the Indo-Pacific. Aukus is certainly a major breakthrough. But there’s no version of variable geometry that will work if the transatlantic relationship doesn’t.


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