Thousands of miles away from the French anger, the recalled ambassadors and canceled galas, USA ‘ nuclear-powered submarine agreement with Australia has received a much warmer welcome in parts of Asia.
That dispute between Paris and Washington is about much more than the multi-billion dollar security pact announced by the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom last week — it talks about the tectonic shifts in geopolitics that seem to define the coming decades.
For many experts, this is perhaps the strongest example yet of how Washington’s focus has shifted away from its old European ally and irrevocably. China. Chairman Joe Biden has spoken passionately about restoring relations with America’s post-war allies across the Atlantic; but many see his priority as expanding the pivot to Asia started by his predecessors.
“Joe Biden’s heart, which knows the man a little bit, is clear in the Atlantic family and the Western family, there is no doubt about that,” said Fabrice Pothier, a French analyst and former NATO chief of political planning.
“However, his head is firmly committed to ensuring that the United States is as strong as possible in the toughest competition ever between two great powers: the United States and China,” he said.
The immediate repercussions continue on Friday when Biden meets leaders of “Quad” – an informal alliance consisting of the United States, Australia, India and Japan.
The group was revived by earlier President Donald Trump and later Biden as a tool, among other things, to address their common concerns about Beijing.
Biden and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, kept what the White House called a “friendly” call Wednesday that seemed to calm some of the short-term anger. They have agreed to meet in Europe next month.
France erupted in rage last week, saying it was dazzled by the pact, which meant its $ 66 billion contract to build diesel-electric submarines for Australia would be scrapped.
“It’s more than the contract and much more than money – it’s also about allies,” Philippe Etienne, France’s ambassador to the United States, who was recalled by Paris as part of its angry reaction, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Tuesday. “What does it mean to be an ally if one hides such things from one another?”
Michael Roth, Germany’s foreign minister for Europe, said the deal was “a wake-up call” and European Council President Charles Michel strongly criticized the Biden administration for leaving Europe “out of the game in the Indo-Pacific.”
This is in contrast to parts of Asia, where the news has been welcomed by those who want to see China’s regional dominance subside.
India and Japan, both regional rivals in China with whom they have territorial disputes, have already welcomed the agreement, called AUKUS.
Elsewhere in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he hoped it would “contribute constructively to peace and stability in the region.”
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has emphasized his kindness to China despite their own territorial disputes. But he himself seemed to welcome the deal, saying Australia’s improved ability to project power should “restore and preserve” the regional security balance rather than destabilize it.
However, not everyone is convinced.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry said last week that it was “deeply concerned about the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.”
Malaysia has also expressed similar concerns, saying it is seeking China’s view.
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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said as early as last week that the announcement “seriously damaged regional peace and stability, intensified an arms race and harmed international efforts to non-proliferate nuclear weapons.”
Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is certainly nothing special.
Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are all upgrading their weapons systems, including often long-range missiles that cost billions of dollars, some of which are supplied by the United States
There are fears that China – which already boasts the world’s largest fleet and makes extensive territorial claims throughout the region – could accelerate its own military modernization.
Confrontation and cooperation
The submarine crisis may have surprised many, but some see it as merely the surface of a trend that has lurked under the diplomacy of the Biden administration.
In the eyes of many Europeans, Biden spoke a good game when he was elected to restore the broken transatlantic relationship that was intentionally degraded by Trump. But in reality, there has been ample friction between Washington and Europe, especially over China.
Biden has repeatedly said that he believes the West and China are involved in a clash of civilizations – democracy vs. authoritarianism – that will define the 21st century. He has tried to rally democratic allies to fight this cause.
However, European countries that have become heavily dependent on Chinese trade are not so sure. As Macron put it earlier this year, he believes it would be “counterproductive” to swear at Beijing.
According to a poll published this week by the European Council on Foreign Relations, nearly two-thirds of EU citizens believe that there is a new Cold War on the way between China and the United States, but only 15 percent believe that their own countries are in a cold war with China.
Although officials have not said so directly, many analysts believe that Australia’s choice to join forces with Washington over Paris in building its submarines was another sign that it has taken Biden’s approach.
In the long run, the fallout from the AUKUS agreement is seen by observers as the latest and perhaps most striking example of a well-known question: how to balance confrontation and cooperation when dealing with Beijing.
“If you’re France,” said Pothier, now a senior adviser to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank, “it hurts to be reminded that you are no longer the center of attention.”
“The question then is to France and the Europeans: Once you get past the anger, what do you want to do about China? Do you want to try to connect with what the United States and Australia are trying to do? Or do you want to get around it and try something else?”
Biden hopes the answer is first.
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