For a French Minister of Foreign Affairs to speak of a “stab in the back” from the United States, the file must really be enormous. It is: Australia has just broken a contract for the construction of submarines with France amounting to 56 billion euros. Canberra will finally go and equip itself with the help of the United States and the United Kingdom. As always in the arms business, the stakes go far beyond the contract itself. 20 Minutes explains this shot from Trafalgar in the Pacific.
What was the “contract of the century” that France has just lost?
France, via Naval Groupe, was to supply twelve attack submarines with conventional propulsion to Australia. A considerable order of 56 billion euros… This contract, concluded in 2016, was the largest armaments contract signed by a French industrialist and by Australia. The goal ? Ensure the presence of Australia in the Pacific, the object of major geopolitical struggles as in the South China Sea, or between Beijing and Washington.
The latter had also given its blessing to the Franco-Australian contract of 2016. AFP recalls that the American industrialist Lockheed Martin was to provide the combat system for future buildings. Unlike the machine-launching submarines available to France (the sole purpose of which is to ensure the reality of nuclear deterrence), attack submarines carry out active military missions (attacks on enemy ships, etc.) or spy.
What is Australia’s new contract?
It is not yet clear how many submarines will be delivered to Australia or how much the contract will be. One thing is certain: it will be more expensive. Because Canberra is buying this time nuclear powered submarines. These can stay longer underwater and are less easily spotted, the first quality of submersible buildings. What is particularly striking is that this contract comes with a new security pact between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. It is named Aukus, like “Australia, United Kingdom, United States”.
In a way, Australia is buying itself access to the firepower of the US military. And, beyond the cost, which promises to be exorbitant for submarines, it will not be free. Michael Sullivan, an expert in international relations at Flinders University, told AFP that this pact could allow “the deployment of long-range American strategic weapons, in particular missiles and stealth bombers, in Australia”. American forces could also arrive in the north of the island, in particular from the bases of Okinawa and Guam, “increasingly vulnerable to Chinese military attacks”.
What does it change at the strategic level in the region?
Because it is China which is in the sights of Aukus. For years, Beijing has been trying to increase its influence in the Pacific area. There is of course Taiwan, which China has not given up on reclaiming, but also the South China Sea, a key trade route. In the sector, Beijing challenges the sovereignty of all the riparian countries by claiming the least atoll. China has the means: it has 360 ships compared to 297 for the entire American fleet. As a result, everyone in the region is teaming up, including Australia. For Washington and Joe Biden, this initiative is a logical continuation of the strategic confrontation with China.
She’s not new, reminder 20 Minutes the associate researcher Iris Jean-Vincent Brisset: “There had been the ” Pacific pivot ” of Obama, which had remained in the speeches, there had been the bilateral initiatives of Trump, but too brutal. This time Biden is brutal but seeks to involve other countries. If he does not make predictions, he considers the American initiative this time more solid. However, it is not without risk. Beijing has of course called the initiative “irresponsible”, but it can also disturb other more minor allies of the United States or Australia. Like New Zealand, which bans nuclear-powered ships in its waters “and does not want its neighbor’s future submarines either,” notes Jean-Vincent Brisset.
What consequences for France?
First, there are economic consequences: 56 billion is not nothing, even though Australia will have to pay hundreds of millions of euros for the breach of the contract. 650 people are working in France on the case but the consequences should be limited. Canberra had indeed obtained that the buildings are built in Australia mainly by a local subcontractor. The strategic consequences could be heavier, although for the moment also more vague. London and Washington having taken care to point out that France had its place in the region.
For a few years now, Paris has said it wants to get involved in the South China Sea. “There was a thrill,” notes Jean-Vincent Brisset. But for the moment, the conferences on France’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific zone have remained conferences. “Other European countries got involved, and even Germany, which, scalded by China’s attitude on the issue of Covid-19, sent a frigate to the area. The researcher remains cautious but wonders if Aukus has not finished “torpedoing the initiatives of the European Union in the region”.