Looming Over the AUKUS Deal Is the Shadow of War

World Politics Review, 22.09.2021
Howard W. French, corresponsal extranjero y escritor de asuntos globales

In the space of a single news cycle last week, the substance behind the news that the United States and Britain had joined forces to sell nuclear submarine technology to Australia came to be overshadowed by the emotions aroused by this development—namely, France’s theatrically indignant response to having its preexisting deal to sell submarines to Canberra canceled without notice.

Paris has invoked “treason” and spoken of being stabbed in the back, comparing U.S. President Joe Biden unfavorably to his predecessor, Donald Trump, all while taking the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors from the United States and Australia, something seldom done even with hostile powers. Remarkably, not even Beijing, the putative target of this new security partnership, has been remotely as vocal.

Some degree of French anger in this matter is surely understandable. But the lingering smoke from Paris’ ongoing fit of temper has obscured the most meaningful implications of what will likely stand as one of the most consequential geopolitical realignments of the post-Cold War era. Upon the scaffolding of the new submarine deal, a new security relationship is being established between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States under the ungainly name AUKUS, one that gives the first real heft to the idea of an American “pivot” to the Pacific, first proposed early in the Obama administration but until now never meaningfully advanced.

Before speaking to the profound ramifications that will flow from this development, it is worth examining the French emotional outburst up close, to cut through all the surface color in order to get to the heart of the matter.

It is true that France, a European ally of the United States, received little to no prior warning of the cancellation of its $66 billion submarine contract in advance of Biden’s announcement of the AUKUS deal. It is equally true that if Canberra, or Washington, had informed Paris well beforehand, France would have pulled out every stop to try to preserve its agreement with Australia and prevent the deal with the U.S. and Britain from going forward.

It is also true that France, which has long been a middling power, sees its hold on various outposts in the Pacific—much like its relationship with its former colonies and current client states in West Africa—as key to preserving its ongoing aspirations for global status and relevance. Having said this, at least since former President Charles de Gaulle, France has always made an open fetish of going its own way in security matters, especially vis-a-vis what it has historically, almost sneeringly referred to as “the Anglo-Saxon world.” And like everything else Paris does, France’s big-stakes push into sophisticated arms sales to Australia must be understood in this light, and not as an act intended to reinforce a broader agenda of Western security alliance-building.

Even now, few Americans realize the gravity of the stakes involved in a looming struggle with China.

This brings us to the actual technology involved. France, which operates nuclear submarines of its own, was to sell an advanced diesel model to Australia. In some situations, advanced diesel subs can operate even more quietly than nuclear ones do, but not over extremely long distances. And for them to be effective, Australia, being a continent unto itself, needs ships that can range undetected far from its shores for months at a time.

Yes, Canberra should have anticipated this difficulty in its original effort to acquire submarines, but having said that, there is nothing unreasonable or even surprising about its conclusion—other than its belatedness—that by the time these new weapons systems come online, they would already have been rendered vulnerable or even obsolete by the rapid, ongoing strengthening of the always scrupulously unnamed power they are intended to counter: China.

Even this, however, doesn’t bring us to the most important features of this new security diplomacy. More important even than the nature of the technology involved, the three parties to the AUKUS alliance must have concluded, whether separately or in discussion with each other, that if push ever comes to shove in the Pacific with China—over, say, Taiwan, which is the most dangerous potential flashpoint in the region at present—that the French were far less likely to commit human lives, or indeed even risk their business interests with China, in such a faraway contest than any of the new partners would be.

We must all ardently hope that war between Western powers and China never breaks out, but war, at heart, means risking real human lives. And we must be more candid in acknowledging that this is what this entire brouhaha is really about—a grim fact that, so far, the public broadly ignores in all of the countries concerned, save perhaps Australia.

That country has been the object of unremitting hostility and sanction from Beijing for many months now for having had the temerity to raise questions about the origins of COVID-19 and express concern about the treatment of China’s Muslim minority Uyghurs, and for having been one of the first countries to bar Chinese 5G communications technology from its infrastructure over security concerns. China has singled Australia out for punishment, dramatically reducing its purchases of everything from coal to wine, while a leading Chinese propagandist has scornfully characterized Australia as little more than a piece of “gum stuck to the sole of China’s shoe.”

Historically speaking, in a very brief period of time, China’s heavy investments in military modernization have allowed it to approach parity with the United States in some areas, and arguably already attain preeminence in the Western Pacific, especially because Beijing now has the world’s largest navy and submarine force. Washington has felt the need, in response, to build new alliances in the Indian Ocean and Pacific in order to retain relevance, if no longer outright preeminence, in this region, without committing itself alone to a ruinous new arms race.

Against a backdrop of deep public unawareness, the thinking of U.S. security planners in both political parties along these lines has converged and gathered momentum since then-President Barack Obama’s notional pivot. As Elbridge A. Colby, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Trump administration, writes in a chilling new book, “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict,” that reflects this new consensus and foreshadowed the AUKUS deal,

“The scale of China’s power and the gravity of the stakes mean that the United States must be sure that it can allocate enough of its power and its willingness to bear risk and cost to denying China hegemony in Asia. All alliances and other defense commitments should be made, retained, deferred, or exited in light of this priority.”

At the heart of this rare bipartisan strategic consensus is the idea that Asia is and will remain, by far, the world’s most important region for decades to come—a possibility that many in the West still seem constitutionally unable to digest, even after the rise of Japan, then the so-called Asian Tigers and finally China. The greatest urgency there, however, relates to Taiwan and the South China Sea. In the first instance, China has declared that it is prepared to use force, if necessary, to assert its claims to the self-governed island and has steadily gone about the business of constructing the military capabilities needed to do so. In the latter case, as I detailed in my book, “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power,” in the past decade, Beijing has methodically gone about building and arming artificial islands throughout this vast strategic waterway, claiming rights to seas that abut many neighboring states and employing a combination of muscular tactics as well as commercial threats and inducements to secure their acquiescence.

Worrisomely, the publics in the various Atlantic nations now caught up in the contest have little sense of what the coming commitment of “risk and cost” that Colby spoke about will mean in their lives, but it is sure to be momentous. This includes France, for which the spat over the submarine sale has become little more than an occasion to vent over long-held identity questions, and remains far removed from blood. Likewise, the Chinese public is barred from freely and openly discussing their country’s strategic course and the effects of actions taken by current leader Xi Jinping and his predecessors on their neighbors. Perhaps even worse, Chinese media conventions and press censorship combine to rule out the airing of the points of view of neighbors and competitors, which are attributed no significance.

Even now, meanwhile, few Americans realize the gravity of the stakes involved in a looming struggle with China to preserve Taiwanese autonomy, and it is not clear that, if they did, they would agree to committing enormous resources and potentially sacrificing human life in great quantity to this effort.

For structural reasons, as the countries with the world’s largest economies, but also with such different and difficult to reconcile political and economic systems, a rivalry between the United States and China in this century seems scarcely avoidable. It is more than a little worrisome, though, that both the United States and China have begun to think about this in primarily security terms.

Credit to the Obama administration for having tried to focus on certain big, positive-sum initiatives, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which Trump withdrew the U.S. from in one of his first acts in office. So far, under Biden, the U.S. has forgone the opportunity to revive vigorous regional economic diplomacy along the lines of the TPP. This has left China the opportunity to apply for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP—a group created by Japan and the other TPP signatories after the original trade pact fell apart—even if this gambit is more symbolic than substantive, as China’s economy lacks the openness and legal protections that the CPTPP requires.

One cannot help but feel that the United States is making a mistake with the momentous AUKUS partnership, though. By so greatly privileging military answers to challenges, Washington is inching toward the classic hammer dilemma. When that’s your only tool, every problem starts to resemble a nail. The danger is that, in East Asia, the nails are connected to detonators.

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