October 03, 2021

US Punishes France for Seeking Strategic Autonomy

B Arjun

FRANCE is fuming. It has been shocked by the Anglo-Saxon decision to hurt it. The three English speaking White leaders have decided that the Franco-Australia contract for building 12 conventional submarines, signed in 2016, is redundant.

So what if the French have been economically and geopolitically wounded, the Australian Navy needs to modernise its underwater fleet with nuclear powered vessels is the sentiment reverberating in the Anglo sphere.

China has expressed its worry but it is not unduly perturbed as it has grown used to the US dropping diplomatic and strategic bombshells every now and then in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US actions have deeply hurt French pride and economic interests. To top it all, the pain of betrayal by friends is even harder to bear. The French that have been enthusiastically taking part in the US led Indo-Pacific maritime activities have suddenly discovered that they are no longer required. That the British have played a big role in ensuring that Paris is made to feel like a pariah is no brainer.

The British are expected to play the game of clearing the Anglo-sphere and the Indian Ocean of European influence. After all, one of the reasons for the British to break-free from the European Union (EU) was to chart its own global maritime course, head back into the region that they had occupied and exploited for two centuries before the Second World War.

The filial bonds have been one of the reasons why Canberra appeased London by expediently jettisoning the $40 billion submarine deal with the Naval Group of France. Washington has rewarded London because of its loyalty and unquestioning faith in the US strategy against China.

Moreover, America is obsessed with meeting the Chinese maritime challenge in the Indo-Pacific. It encouraged Britain to leave the EU and fulfill its role as a maritime power. The British elite are back to remembering those halcyon days when the Indian Ocean was a British lake.  In such a scenario the continental powers of Europe are not expected to play a major role. 

The transatlantic alliance was built keeping in mind the ideological war with the Soviet Union. The 21st century strategic imperatives resulting from the stupendous rise of China has led the US to shift its navy from the Atlantic to Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The relative importance of NATO in the US strategic calculus has declined. President Joe Biden is now more focused on building a NATO like alliance in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS could expand later to include other Indo-Pacific players.


Biden talks big on building alliances but his policy towards Europe seems to be inspired by Donald Trump. Trump only hurt EU leadership through a series of tweets; Biden has moved a step ahead by actually injuring the transatlantic ties.

The manner in which France has been treated clearly indicates that the US has punished it intentionally for emphasizing the role of “strategic autonomy” in its national as well as European foreign and security policy.

Strategic autonomy has never been the strong point of Britain’s foreign policy. Australia has been lured with nuclear submarines to relinquish the element of independence in its foreign policy. Australia’s former prime minister Paul Keating, in a scathing attack has said that the AUKUS agreement “will amount to a lock-in of Australian military equipment and thereby forces, with those of the US with only one objective: the ability to act collectively in any military engagement by the US against China.”

Unlike Britain and Australia, France has been reluctant to toe the American line on China that advocates a confrontationist approach. And America is not willing to tolerate such an independent attitude from its friends and allies. It wants all to endorse the latest Washington consensus on China.

Europe is not willing to blindly follow America in confronting China, its biggest trading partner. Europe is in no mood to disturb the economic apple cart by focusing on Indo-Pacific security issues alone. The EU is willing to join the US-led chorus on human rights issues within China but beyond that it remains skeptical of the US efforts to create a new cold war.  

In the early 1950s France had scuttled the emergence of a federal European army and joint European security policy. Today the French President Emmanuel Macron is in the vanguard of forming the common European army. This time around, the revival of European defense integration is led by French President Emmanuel.

France is taking over the rotating presidency of the EU in 2022 and is expected to give a boost to the very idea of a European security setup that is parallel to NATO.  France and Germany want the European addiction to the American security umbrella to end. The US wants Europe to remain under its tutelage but spend more on defence to reduce the US burden.  This contradiction is creating cracks in the transatlantic alliance.
One of the key elements of American Cold War Strategy was to engineer the Sino-Soviet split.  The situation has changed and the West is on the verge of a split on the China issue.

The decades-old resentment of American power that has simmered among European allies since Second World War is now coming to the fore. It may take a couple of decades for the West alliance to rupture formally but the process has begun.

International arms sales are deeply entrenched in international politics. There is a possibility that President Biden and Macron will work towards using tensions. One short-term solution that may reduce friction is if the US uses its vast elite networks across the globe to help France win as lucrative a contract as it lost in Australia. India is in the process of procuring conventional submarines under its 75I plan. The US state department may use its networks among the Indian foreign policy elite for Naval Group France to be a part of the Indian submarine contract.

If this was to happen, two questions that arise are:  Will Prime Minister Modi oblige? And what will India get in return from France and the USA?  One sincerely hopes that in the transatlantic drama India doesn’t end up as a strategic sucker.