Impact of AUKUS on US-EU Relations

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Impact of AUKUS on US-EU Relations

Insights from Frédéric Grare.

Impact of AUKUS on US-EU Relations

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Frédéric Grare – a senior policy fellow with the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations who previously served at the Center for Analysis, Planning and Strategy (CAPS) of the French Ministry for Europe and External Affairs (MEAE), Paris, where he focused on Indo-Pacific dynamics and Indian Ocean security issues  ̶  is the 297th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

What is the impact of AUKUS on the transatlantic alliance?

AUKUS is officially an arrangement between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, three allied countries, who have decided to reinforce their security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific through a series of technology transfers related to cyber capabilities, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, and nuclear-powered submarines. As such it did not signal any divergence between U.S. and European allies, nor did it question per se the U.S. commitment to the security of Europe.

However, it would be foolish to believe that the episode will have no impact on the transatlantic alliance. The scrapping of the contract between France and Australia, without any consultation between Paris on the one side, and Canberra, London, and Washington on the other, may have been a bilateral matter, but it certainly did raise questions in many capitals as to what it means to be a U.S. ally. Meanwhile the breach of trust between Paris and Canberra has de facto loosened the already fragile strategic connection between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. The announcement of AUKUS shortly before the release of the EU Strategy cooperation in the Indo-Pacific moreover demonstrated at the very least a deep disregard for the Europeans.

No dramatic reactions should be expected in the short term. But lessons will be drawn from the episode.

Amid the fallout from AUKUS, how might trust be restored from the perspective of Paris vis-à-vis Washington, London, and Canberra?

From the perspective of Paris, the real question is not how trust will be restored but whether trust will be restored. The French government will reestablish working relationships wherever it sees a convergence of interests, always a safer bet than trust, but will most probably ignore everything else. This is likely to generate a situation where the relationship will be restored relatively quickly with the United States and remain limited to the bare minimum with Australia as the two countries share common strategic interest in the Pacific. France is also likely to let relations with the United Kingdom run their post-Brexit course which, in the Indo-Pacific, may potentially transform what was once a solid cooperation into an absurd competition with no potential winners. But seen from Paris, it will be difficult to maintain a substantial cooperation with a partner that has become totally unreliable. Ultimately though, time and political successions may do much more to improve the set of relationships than specific policies.

What is the level of political will among European capitals to implement the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in the wake of the AUKUS announcement?

The AUKUS announcement is unlikely to affect the political will of European capitals to implement the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific but may change its focus and significance and ultimately have a debilitating effect on it. The strategy itself is a framework in which sectoral policies will evolve at different paces and most likely with different scopes while EU member-states’ motivations for the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific differ from country to country. France, which has territories, populations, and interests in both the Pacific and Indian Ocean, is inevitably more sensitive to the strategic dimension of the EU strategy, whereas the motivation of the other member states is a function of two main parameters: their economic interests in the area and the transactional character of the strategy, the perception that the EU contribution to the Indo-Pacific is a way to help guarantee U.S. commitment to Europe’s security. With AUKUS, the potential transactional value of the strategy has been diminished. Other dimensions remain and will be implemented but their strategic value, already limited, becomes questionable. Over time, there is a risk of dilution of the initial intentions of the EU strategy.

How might Germany’s new leadership in the post-Merkel era shape the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy?

With negotiations on the formation of the new German government still going on, the potential new leadership has not yet formulated if, and eventually how, it will shape the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. There is however an emerging consensus among German political elites on the need to rethink relations with China, and this is likely to influence the way the future German government will look at the strategy and its potential use. The sort of China “Ostpolitik” idea that engaging China economically is the way to influence its future political development, on the model of what had happened with the Soviet Union, is gradually giving way to a more realist assessment of China’s evolution. This could mean that German policy could try to influence the EU document in a resolutely more strategic direction. But this perception will inevitably compete with the reality of German economic engagement with China, which has sometimes increased in the past few months. The potential outcome of this dialectic is still unclear, but the process is likely to be a long and incremental one.

Assess whether AUKUS poses a temporary setback or deeper rupture in EU-U.S. relations and how China could benefit from transatlantic divergence.

AUKUS per se did not create a setback, even less a deeper rupture in EU-U.S. relations. But it is certainly adding to the perception that Europe is increasingly marginal in U.S. foreign policy. This may have come a surprise to many in Europe who believed that the election of President Joe Biden, supposedly well disposed towards the transatlantic alliance, would mean a return to business as usual. Whether AUKUS will be a wake-up call for the Europeans, or what direction this will lead to, remain to be seen. Reactions have so far been careful. But sooner or later, the EU, even if in its own pragmatic, unspectacular, and discreet way, will have to address the tough question of its relations with the U.S.