The reverberations of Australia’s submarine deal cancelation with France are unlikely to simmer down any time soon, especially the way Australian President Scott Morrison scrapped the contract and informed French President Emmanuel Macron through a text message.
Kiwis’ efforts to mollify Paris and push for closer economic ties with the European Union (EU) faced challenges as the bloc gave a nod to the French request and delayed a long-planned Brussels-Canberra trade deal for one month, casting doubts on the future of the far-reaching treaty.
Read more: EU postpones trade talks with Australia as subs row intensifies
It’s an outcome in the offing
The last-minute Australia’s ditch to France had already put trade negotiations at risk and left the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wondering whether the EU would be able to strike a trade deal with Australia in a show of solidarity with France.
The AUKUS rebuttal was so shocking; it forced France, usually a savvy country toward allies and foes, to turn bitter diplomatically. Paris compared US President Joe Biden’s “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision” through presser with Donald Trump who often wittingly vilified the US partners on Twitter including Macron whom he privately belittled as “a wuss guy.”
Washington hoped the phone call between Macron and Biden and the return of the French ambassador to America would bring the fraught France-US relationship back to normal, anticipating the former to soften his stance on Europe’s strategic autonomy. But the French president continues to be stubborn in his urge as he seeks Europeans to “stop being naïve” and is speaking expressively on defending regional interests and developing military capacity.
In Australia, the postponement of the trade talks sparked a contentious debate
Opposition lambasted Morrison over his failure “to do the diplomatic leg work required to manage the relationship with our French partners.” The criticism followed after former Kiwi Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned the candid-free “appalling episode” will “endure to our disadvantage for a very long time.”
Read more: Ex Australian PM says successor deceived France on nuclear subs
Turnbull’s fears aren’t unsubstantiated. While breach of “contract of the century” would have economic implications for the French defense sector, the deserted submarine deal also pitted against Macron’s campaign for a second term just less than seven months ahead of the presidential elections in the country.
France is the 7th largest global economy and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Paris’ economic and strategic importance as well as strong defense characteristics – a nuclear-armed nation with the 6th largest defense budget in the world, which has the most powerful military in Europe and is an important factor in the Pacific– as a whole takes the shine off Australia in the ongoing fracas and outlines French critical role in regional and transnational affairs.
Canberra’s lackluster attempts in conveying a defiant message to Paris, which would flabbergast the entire EU, has led to this diplomatic brinkmanship. Morrison’s reluctance to talk to Macron and insistence to follow his schedule further compelled Élysée Palace to hold only “conversation of substance.” This communication breakdown elicited hyperalgesia in French, urging them to dub their abandonment as “Australian punch, an American late-tackle and a British eye-gouging.”
All isn’t well for Canberra either
The reason why Australia dumped a $43 billion deal with Paris, Morrison argues is nuclear submarine technology that wasn’t previously available. But with the first of the French subs supposed to be in waters in 2032, Australia won’t have new subs for the next 20 years. That means the Australian sub-program would hang by thread for at least a couple of decades and by that time, even nuclear submarines could be obsolete or visible by countries such as China whose technology will have reached an advanced level to detect and destroy the Australian sub.
The US, UK and Australia have pitched the novel strategic alliance, the AUKUS, against China. Don’t forget the Australian strategic strategy in 2016 admired Beijing’s continued economic growth and opportunities it brought for Canberra and other nations in the Indo-Pacific. Canberra had even pledged to expand defense relations with Beijing through personnel exchanges, military exercises and practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
Read more: Australia sets conditions for China joining Pacific pact
Although Australia’s 2020 defense strategic update seems to toe the line of the US’ China policy and accused Beijing of pursuing greater influence in the region, Canberra circumvented to antagonize Beijing and kept the focus on China-US strategic competition its immediate region: “ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean through maritime and mainland Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and the southwest Pacific.”
Even as Australia has jumped on the US America’s bandwagon to counter China in the region, Morrison says the AUKUS would ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific. Clearly, Australia doesn’t want to sandwich itself between existing and emerging superpowers of the world in the event of any military flare-up. This Australian non-confrontation approach coincides in part with that of the EU where a vast European majority sees the growing China-US rivalry for Beijing’s emergence as a new geopolitical reality.
Canberra’s economic stakes in Beijing are much higher than in Brussels
China has been the biggest export market for Australia and it remains the major destination for Australian goods despite the ongoing trade and political tensions. In comparison, China is the biggest source of imports for the EU with which it runs a trade deficit; still, the bloc is committed to securing the Beijing-Brussels trade and investment relationship.
But when it comes to diplomacy and realistically balancing relationships with China and the US, Australia fares poorly against the EU. Unlike Brussels that endured pressure however didn’t take sides to protect its ties with the major economies, kept communication lines open and sought deepening cooperation with Beijing in the Indo-Pacific amid differences, the Morrison administration has completely failed to do the necessary groundwork to prevent Canberra from being caught between the two behemoths. The tally rises to three with the addition of the EU.
Read more: In escalation over submarine deal, France recalls envoys from US and Australia
Morrison’s diplomatic gaffe has a cost, which Turnbull says will dog Australian relationship with Europe for years. As this impasse could even prolong to decades and Canberra is yet to take a real pinch of the trade war with Beijing, the Kiwi government is on the brink of losing more than two dozen allies in Europe and has effectively mortgaged his country’s economic future just at the stroke of a pen in Washington.
Azhar Azam writes on geopolitical issues and regional conflicts and is an opinion contributor to CGTN, News24, The Mail & Guardian, New Straits Times, Bangkok Post, and The Express Tribune (partner of The International New York Times). The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.