While France has every reason to be immensely disappointed with Australia’s decision to change the supplier of its new submarines – even more so given the misguidance and short notice they received – the French should be conscious of not overplaying their hand.
In just a couple of weeks, much has been made of Australia’s decision to form the AUKUS security pact and in so doing, gain nuclear-propelled submarines at the expense of French diesel-powered vessels. Understandably, the French government, as the majority stakeholder in Naval Group, were extremely indignant. France lost more than just a contract; it lost a $90 billion partnership that would have served as an anchor to their Indo-Pacific strategy over the next two decades. This of course coupled with the jarring shock of hearing Australia’s decision only a day or so before the announcement and receiving various assurances that further contracts would be signed.
France could almost be forgiven for never entirely trusting Australia and its Anglophonic allies for quite some time. Some of the factors that led Australia to opt for the AUKUS submarines are, however, the very reason why France should exercise a measured response moving forward – knowing the withdrawal of its ambassadors to Australia and the US asserted a very strong discontentment.
Australia now faces a markedly more assertive China than in 2016 when the procurement deal was signed with France. But this reality is not unique to Australia. Other nations in the Indo-Pacific, indeed over a million French citizens, also face this growing strategic dynamic. For France’s disappointment to derail emerging opportunities for stronger relations amidst this context, could engender a path to similar criticism as that currently facing Australia.
France needs now more than ever to exercise its characteristic restraint and reaffirm itself as the reliable European ally to the region that the US and Australia was not to it. The loss of French commitment to, or interest in, the Indo-Pacific, at only the start of the Asian-century, would represent a significant loss for numerous nations, not-least France.
Nevertheless, reports France leveraged its European Union influence to disrupt a free trade deal with Australia after three years of negotiation exemplifies the potential for relations to wane further. Many-a-trade deal has been cast onto the dust heap over far smaller disagreements. Though many of these would not have been three years in the making, the language of a “brutal… stab in the back” that left the French Foreign Minister “bitter” suggests this could be more than domestic political rhetoric.
Suspending the trade deal would send an assertive message to the AUKUS members. However, jeopardising the deal and stifling trade opportunities for other EU members, risks casting a spiteful appearance on France.
An extensive free trade deal could in fact, serve as a steppingstone for France to develop deeper economic ties with the Indo-Pacific in the absence of submarine contracts. With President Macron the heir-apparent to Chancellor Merkel’s leadership of Europe, having one deal more linking the EU with the Indo-Pacific offers more influence than one less.
Trust is the most important national security asset. Australia, the UK and the US, broke trust with France. The Anglophone may-well rue not including an EU power into their pact and will not doubt make haste to repair relations. But France is in the position to restore trust and present itself as an attractive, respected international partner. But, excessive retaliation, irrespective of the unequivocally poor treatment it received, would not serve the interest of any state in question.
Luke Goldman is an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs in NSW and an International Relations student at the University of Sydney.