As China rapidly expands in the South China Sea and makes increasingly threatening moves toward Taiwan, the new trilateral defence pact between the UK, Australia and the United States known as AUKUS shows that the West won’t sit idly by as China makes more and more aggressive moves. It also proves that the UK still has the capability to remain a key player on the international stage post-Brexit. This agreement has caused some tension with the French, as Australia cancelled a £27 billion submarine deal with them. France’s dislike of this pact goes far deeper than this however, and is quite frankly embarrassing.
This new defence pact not only means the UK and USA will give Australia the tools to build 12 nuclear submarines, but also establishes greater cooperation regarding cybersecurity and other undersea technologies. It expands the influence that both the UK and the US have in the region, along with the defensive capabilities should the Chinese do something reckless.
This deal is needed because of China’s increased presence in the South China Sea — somewhere it wrongly thinks is sovereign territory. The Chinese navy is one of the largest in the world, and its aggressive actions toward Taiwan are increasingly concerning. It is threatening the stability in the region, and millions of lives in the process.
AUKUS therefore is an acknowledgement by free nations that these threats need to be countered. It will improve Australia’s responsive capabilities to China. Nuclear powered submarines are harder to detect, carry more missiles and launch them from longer distances, and are faster than conventional fleets. It also increases the UK’s and US’s influence in the region, because it is strengthening an ally who will share important information.
It is also proof that the UK can fulfil the idea of Global Britain and prosper outside of the EU. This agreement bolsters our influence in Asia, and shows that our other allies are willing to strengthen ties with us. The UK will not just fade into irrelevance on the global stage like some may think.
However, this agreement has created tension. China naturally disapproved, and the deal also brought about considerable disapproval from the French. This is because it terminated a deal that the Australians had with France, in which they were going to provide them with new submarines. There was also anger that the French were notified only hours before the announcement. Although this can be explained quite easily, due to the sensitive nature of the agreement secrecy is paramount.
While the loss of the submarine deal is understandably disappointing, it isn’t shocking. It was fraught with problems — being over budget, security issues and constant delays just to name a few — so Australia clearly wanted what was in its national interest. French anger went far beyond this. France has a large presence in the IndoPacific, so no doubt they thought they should have been included. But that logic is deeply flawed.
The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian described the move as a “stab in the back”, and accused the three countries of “duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt”. In the following days, Macron withdrew ambassadors from the US and Australia.
What is notable is that the French ambassadors in the UK were not withdrawn. This was addressed, with Le Drian saying that the UK’s role in the pact was “opportunistic” and described the UK as the “fifth wheel on the wagon”. Briefings given to the French press went further, saying that the UK was “riding along Uncle Sam’s coat-tails”.
This is extremely insulting, and speaks to why the French weren’t involved. AUKUS is not just a security deal, but is the strengthening of ties between allies who share a long and common history with each other. The French do not share this. The French-US relationship was strained under President Trump, and Macron has always viewed the UK with disdain. This alliance is more than its strategic nature, but it is a recognition of the global significance of the countries.
These insults are borne from the fact that the UK has been able to be more nimble and flexible post-Brexit, whereas Macron is struggling to get the EU to counter China. Macron wants the EU to commit to more defensive integration, but this has not been forthcoming. The UK is succeeding post-Brexit, which is something the French can’t acknowledge.
AUKUS is a fantastic pact that recognises the danger China poses, and helps to prove that the UK hasn’t become a global irrelevance. While it is somewhat understandable the French are annoyed at the pact, the tantrum that has been thrown is embarrassing and counterproductive. China is watching how the West acts, and will no doubt seek to exploit the humiliating rift the French are causing. China should be the focus in this, but Macron has made it about himself.
Words by Kieran Burt