For centuries, France has been the fulcrum of European civilization, the Holy Roman Empire, Catholicism, the Crusades, Revolution, culture, fashion, and innovations…until it became one of the 30 member-states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations (NATO) after the World War II and lost its pre-eminence in world affairs first to Great Britain and then to the USA.
Even now, France is where Europe is still fighting its fiercest civilizational battle against a resurgent political Islam.
Those old wounds still ache across a narcissist France.
That is why Paris was so livid with the USA and a new challenger, Australia, this week that it recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra in a huff. But France is also known to act in a haste and repent in leisure. It has done so multiple times in the past and returned to the table without taking back much.
On Friday, an angry Paris took the unusual diplomatic step against what it felt was the American-Australian ‘betrayal’. Its Foreign Minister even called it a “knife in the back’. The way it had failed to see in 1921 Germany’s anger at the Versaille Treaty, that sparked the World War II, it has failed in 2021 to visualize why America and Australia did something ‘behind its back’.
The issue at hand was France’s largest-ever defense deal, worth $60 billion, for the supply of a dozen traditionally-powered attack submarines, to strengthen Australia’s defence against China in the South China Sea and Beijing’s rising tension with Canberra, particularly after the pandemic.
China’s arrogance, expansionist designs and hegemony have, in the last couple of year, created an urgency for many nations, including the West, and they are drawing up emergency plans to meet the Dragon’s challenge in multiple war theatres. The sudden activation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), and this week’s fresh alliance between the USA, Britain and Australia, are part of this geo-strategy, as was the last month’s ‘freedom’ accorded to the Taliban to keep a big chunk of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pinned down in the Uyghur Muslim-dominated Xinjiang in the decades to come.
In other words, the way the US is pitting Afghanistan against China in the West, it is arming Australia in the East. Why? To keep Beijing away from foraying into global naval power politics on both the sides.
Apparently it was with this objective that, fearing the French reluctance to forgo its big business deal and thus delay decision-making in the face of mounting Chinese threat, that the US and Australia entered secret talks, keeping Paris out of the loop. The US promised Australia nuclear-powered submarines, media reports said.
That is why, as soon as US President Joe Biden announced the submarine deal on Wednesday during a news conference, all hell broke loose in France, which felt betrayed in 2021 the way Germany did in 1921.
Knowing this ‘French disconnection’ and idiosyncracy very well, and the possibility of the deal being sabotaged by a democracy-blinded and short-sighted Paris, the US and Australia went to extraordinary lengths to keep France in the dark while they secretly negotiated. The nuclear submarine deal, as expensive as the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), will be a key component of the West’s policy to keep Beijing pinned down in South China Sea, although it scuttled France’s mammoth contract.
The French-Australian deal was signed in 2018. Since then, geopolitical realities have undergone a sea change, literally and metaphorically. China has suddenly emerged as the single largest threat to the world. The Dragon is now the Devil.
Had the US and Australia waited for an easy-going and argumentative France to come around to this urgency, it would have been too late. The new deal so enraged, predictably, that French President Emmanuel Macron, on Friday, ordered the withdrawal of his country’s ambassadors from both the nations.
Macron’s decision was not unexpected, on a day that France and the USA had planned to celebrate an alliance that goes back to the defeat of Britain in the Revolutionary War of 1776.
A furious France realized that two of its closest allies, the US and Australia, negotiated secretly for months and betrayed it.
Even in the last months of the Donald Trump presidency, Australia had already told the US that it wanted to wriggle out of the agreement with a snail-paced France.
Australia feared, correctly, that the conventionally-powered French submarines would be obsolete by the time of their delivery, at a time China was becoming uncontrollable. Canberra should, instead, buy a fleet of quieter nuclear-powered submarines based on American and British designs that could patrol areas of the South China Sea with less risk of detection.
Canberra did find it difficult to terminate the French deal, which was already over budget and running behind schedule. But it had to take a decision in the face of a recalcitrant China. According to the US officials, Canberra had assured them to take care of the French concerns. Biden was reported to have concurred with Australia’s fears of China, and uncertainty about France.
“Biden’s top aides finally discussed the issue with the French hours before it was publicly announced at the White House in a virtual meeting with Mr. Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia. The result was a blow-up that has now led to a vivid breach of trust with one of America’s oldest allies”, media reported.
Apparently, Washington realized that the new threat, present and now, to the West and Europe, may not come from a hibernating Russia but from a resurgent China. It is, therefore, scouting for new defense allies in Asia—Australia, Japan, India—in a bid to create an ‘Asian NATO’ on the European model via Quad.
Not only France, even China did not get a clue on the new deal, and the three-nation alliance that quickly followed. Beijing’s first response to the new alliance, named AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States), was that it was “extremely irresponsible” and would start an arms race. The Chinese Navy has built a dozen nuclear subs, some of which can carry nuclear weapons. Australia had earlier vowed never to deploy nuclear weapons. No longer.
When Presiden Macron recalled the ambassadors, the US seemed taken aback by the ferocity of the French response, especially its Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s comment that it was a “knife in the back.”
But the US knows the French bark is fiercer than a feeble bite. Its anger would gradually subside, as in the past, Paris would acquiesce and come around after assessing the real threats being posed by China to the world.
How can France forget that America had opened the second front at Normandy in 1944 to liberate Paris from Berlin…
And that Paris had gifted the Statue of Liberty to America in 1886 to commemorate its contribution to the American Revolution in 1776 against Britain?