Another Setback for Transatlantic Relations

September 22, 2021

In a recent post I said,  “Moscow and Peking were no doubt delighted to see the US get bogged down in Afghanistan for two decades, just as Washington was delighted to watch USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan end up in failure.  But after two disastrous experiences, history should not be allowed to repeat itself. Washington should not start enjoying what might be the negative repercussions of the Taliban victory for its two strategic competitors…

“The terrorist threat has taken deep root in the Middle East with its long-drawn-out conflicts. To stop its spreading elsewhere, major powers have no other option than working together. Presidents  Biden and Xi Jinping agreeing that competition should not veer into conflict is a positive sign.” [i] Obviously, my assessment of the readout of their call was an overstatement.

Because, only days after the Biden-Xi phone call, President Biden, Prime Ministers Morrison, and Johnson announced the creation of AUKUS, a new enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK, and the US.  Mr. Morrison said that the first major initiative of AUKUS will be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia.

Mr. Biden, clearly in anticipation of the reaction from Paris said France already has a substantial Indo-Pacific presence and is a key partner and ally in strengthening the security and prosperity of the region. “The United States looks forward to working closely with France and other key countries as we go forward,” he added.

On September 16, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the agreement as “extremely irresponsible”,  seriously undermining regional peace and stability, intensifying the arms race, and undermining international non-proliferation efforts.

The same day, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly issued a joint statement which said:

“The regrettable decision just announced only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy. There is no other credible path for defending our interests and values around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Moreover, in an interview, Foreign Minister Le Drian said, “It’s a stab in the back. We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed”. Moreover, he said that the announcement of the move was reminiscent of Biden’s predecessor in office, Donald Trump.

To underline its frustration Paris recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra “for consultations”.

And probably adding insult to injury, PM Morrison said, “We had deep and grave concerns that the capability being delivered by the Attack-class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests and we had made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest.”

Reuters reported that in 2016, Australia had selected French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a new submarine fleet worth 40 billion dollars to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines. Only a few weeks before the announcement of AUKUS, the Australian defense and foreign ministers had reconfirmed the deal to France, and French President Emmanuel Macron had lauded decades of future cooperation when hosting Prime Minister Scott Morrison in June. But with the announcement of AUKUS, that deal was gone. (The contract is reckoned to be worth much more than 40, perhaps close to 60 billion dollars today.)

In brief, the current conflict between Washington and Paris is not about China policy, confronting or engaging China. It is about economic/political competition for profit to the detriment of NATO solidarity. It perfectly fits in the pattern of the strategic competition between the US and China.


  • Only a week after the Biden-Xi phone call, tensions are likely to rise in the Indo-Pacific, and
  • Less than a year after Brexit and only seven months after Mr. Biden’s Virtual Munich Security Conference speech where he had defined the partnership between Europe and the US as the cornerstone of all that the West hopes to accomplish in the 21st century, the transatlantic relationship is once more on the rocks.

Peking is no doubt frustrated. Nonetheless, Russia and China should both be delighted with the French reaction to AUKUS.

Last Thursday, at a joint press conference with Australian Foreign and Defense Ministers,  and Defense Secretary Austin, “I want to emphasize that there is no regional divide separating the interests of our Atlantic and our Pacific partners.  This partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom is a signal that we’re committed to working with our allies and partners, including in Europe, to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.  We welcome European countries playing an important role in the Indo-Pacific.  We look forward to continued close cooperation with NATO, with the European Union, and others in this endeavor,” declared Secretary Blinken, without specifically referring to China.

Continued close  cooperation” is an overstatement. Because NATO started paying attention to multifaceted challenges posed by China only in 2019, after years of strong US urging.

NATO’s London Declaration issued by the Heads of State and Government  in December 2019, stated the following on China: “We recognize that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.”

In London, NATO leaders asked Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to lead a forward-looking reflection to make NATO stronger and fit for the future.  To this end, in April 2020, Secretary General Stoltenberg appointed an independent Reflection Group. In November 2020, the Group handed over a report to Mr. Stoltenberg on how to make NATO an even stronger Alliance.[ii] The Group’s report is one of a number of inputs into the Secretary General’s NATO 2030 initiative.

The Reflection Group Report states the following on China:

“For most Allies, China is both an economic competitor and significant trade partner… While China does not pose an immediate military threat to the Euro-Atlantic area on the scale of Russia, it is expanding its military reach into the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Arctic, deepening defense ties with Russia, and developing long-range missiles and aircraft, aircraft carriers, and nuclear-attack submarines with global reach, extensive space-based capabilities, and a larger nuclear arsenal… Looking out to 2030, NATO must provide a position of security and strength to contribute to Allies’ relations with China and guard against any attempts by Beijing to employ coercion against them. This requires that China be unable to exploit differences between Allies… Above all, it (NATO) must show political cohesion and remain a platform for consultation on China’s actions and Allies’ reactions; defending Allies’ values and an international order based on rules… It should be open to engagement with China at different levels and to opportunities for cooperation, including considering establishing a de-confliction mechanism at the military level, should China’s role in the Euro-Atlantic area warrant.” (Emphasis added)

NATO’s Brussels summit of June 14, 2021 was the first heads of state and government meeting Mr. Biden attended as President.

The two paragraphs dealing with China, first time in a NATO communiqué, were more carefully worded than those dealing with Russia. They started by saying that China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.

In this connection the Communique mentioned China’s rapidly expanding  nuclear arsenal with more warheads and sophisticated delivery systems;  its opaqueness in implementing its military modernization; its militarily cooperation with Russia; and China’s “frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation”. 

The Communique then said, “NATO maintains a constructive dialogue with China where possible.  Based on our interests, we welcome opportunities to engage with China on areas of relevance to the Alliance and on common challenges such as climate change… Allies urge China to engage meaningfully in dialogue, confidence-building, and transparency measures regarding its nuclear capabilities and doctrine.  Reciprocal transparency and understanding would benefit both NATO and China.” (Emphasis added)

In Brussels, President Biden got most of what he wanted from its NATO allies on Russia and China, but that did not mean that those allies were in full agreement over the entire spectrum of relations with Moscow and Peking. Washington’s European allies simply wanted to give a warm welcome to President Biden after four troubling years with Mr. Trump. But the reality is that they remain more willing to walk the extra mile towards cooperation with America’s two strategic competitors.

In brief, NATO’s China strategy is only in the making. And even at this early stage it has run into trouble because NATO leaders have not only failed to ensure transparency among themselves, and display “political cohesion”, they are in open conflict.

Although France reaction to AUKUS is a particular case, Washington’s other NATO allies should also be disappointed for not being adequately consulted on the launching of AUKUS. One may even say, “particularly disappointed” coming so soon after their being sidelined in the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, reinforcing the impression that presidents may come and go but US attitude towards Europe does not change; and, that the UK has always been and remains Washington’s principal European ally, as witnessed by the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and now the launching of AUKUS.

Washington’s European allies would be reluctant to be dragged into an open confrontation with China. And it should be noted that after seven years of negotiations, the EU and China reached an investment deal at the end of 2020. China is EU’s top trading partner.

China-US relationship could and should have made a better beginning after four years of disarray in Washington. President Biden’s labelling of Russia as the “biggest threat” to US security, and China the “biggest competitor” is unlikely to find many followers in Europe.




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