HomeTrumpism by another name: what does Aukus show about geopolitics of Indo-Pacific?

Trumpism by another name: what does Aukus show about geopolitics of Indo-Pacific?

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AUKUS could eventually drive Europeans to conclude that Indo-Pacific is too far from their interests.

September 16 should have been a time of celebration for all advocates – including Americans – of a more assertive EU foreign policy. That day, the high representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell, launched the EU Cooperation Strategy in the Indo-Pacific. 

Although based on a consensus between the different positions of the 27 Member States, the new document represents a qualitative step towards a true EU investment in the Indo-Pacific region, which is increasingly the epicenter of world politics. 

The EU strategy envisages bringing new financial means to key issues such as connectivity. More generally, it constitutes a useful strategic framework for asserting European interests in the area, including in the field of security.

However, the headlines of the day were monopolized by the announcement of Aukus, the new security agreement between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. The aim of Aukus is to deepen cooperation between the three signatory countries in a series of security and defense capabilities. 

They plan to achieve this by transferring technology related to cyber capabilities, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, and nuclear-powered submarines. 

This last point was the one that attracted the most media attention, and its immediate consequence was the annulment of a contract between Australia and France for the construction of 12 conventionally powered diesel-electric submarines. 

The broader strategic perspective, and the European dimension within it, were lost in the resulting diplomatic crisis between Paris, on the one hand, and Canberra and Washington, on the other.

The extent and duration of this crisis are yet to be confirmed, but Europeans would be wrong if they believed that this is only a problem for the French and that it has no consequences for Europe. Aukus tells us a lot about the foreign policy of the Biden administration and raises two fundamental questions: What does it mean to be an ally of the United States? And what is Washington’s vision on the Indo-Pacific?

First, the Biden administration’s purported multilateralism is nothing more than unilateralism by another name. As some US analysts have rightly observed, Aukus has not pointed to a divergence between the US and the EU, although the date, form and content of the announcement of the new security pact – the same day as the publication of the strategy of the EU – they have signaled deep contempt, if not outright disdain, towards Europeans. Its consequences, however, are much more profound.

Termination of the submarine contract was a bilateral matter and did not directly affect the other EU Member States. But the breakdown of trust has weakened the strategic partnership between Australia and France and consequently the strength of the already fragile connection between Europe and the emerging Indo-Pacific architecture of power. 

The EU has been de facto relegated to the position of a potential funder without actually being able to intervene in decisions regarding the region. EU contributions to the collective effort would be welcome, but not really expected, a situation that points to marginalization. The way Aukus was conceived and announced indicates that things can only be done under the American flag.

America dances alone

The US move ultimately reveals the fundamental contradiction of US policy in the Indo-Pacific, which heightens hostility toward China while weakening the cohesion of US alliances. In that sense, Biden’s foreign policy clearly resembles that of Donald Trump.

Interestingly, the situation is not much different for other allies of the United States, including, ironically, Australia and the United Kingdom. US security assurances for Australia come at the cost of a considerable delay, at best, of any prospect of Australians developing a submarine industry of their own, increasing their dependence on the US. 

Meanwhile, the UK’s contribution to the project and its benefits are uncertain, beyond Boris Johnson’s short-term political blow to Europe. In real military terms, the United States needs neither Australia nor the United Kingdom. The new US administration is pursuing a de facto ‘America only’ policy in the Indo-Pacific. 

Its partners will be auxiliaries at best, and decisions regarding military engagement will undoubtedly be American, regardless of the overwhelmingly positive reception from Australians themselves.

Second, the American vision of the Indo-Pacific is inextricably linked to the way the United States manages its alliances and partnerships. The Aukus security pact shows the American intention to tackle the problem of China more forcefully. 

For this reason, it is well received by most Indo-Pacific countries, including Japan. However, those same countries note that the overwhelming military superiority of the United States has not prevented China from achieving the position it now enjoys, especially through the use of non-military means for geopolitical gain. Increased US military capabilities in the region are unlikely to decrease the influence resulting from the political weight of China. 

For this reason, the announcement – immediately after Aukus came to light – of China’s request to join the General and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership is politically and strategically significant, regardless of whether it is ultimately part of the treaty or not.

America’s allies are increasingly drawn into the zero-sum game created by the rivalry between the United States and China. However, for Washington, there are also no clear benefits, aside from political ones, now that the Biden administration considers that the Australian contribution has been secured. 

Aukus is unlikely to generate much enthusiasm in the EU, whose member states are often ambivalent about the Indo-Pacific strategy they have just adopted, and whose initial objective of limiting Chinese power by peaceful means seems to have been forgotten. 

Borrell and the President of the European Commission, Úrsula von der Leyen, may have called for greater European strategic autonomy, but most EU Member States are likely to settle for a situation they are comfortable with, that is In other words, in the hope that the United States remains committed to the security of Europe. But this can be a misreading. 

France’s treatment shows that even activism in the Indo-Pacific, which France has largely displayed, is not in the interest of an American president supposedly favorable to the transatlantic alliance. 

If anything, the Aukus initiative is likely to drive Europeans into even greater passivity when it comes to Indo-Pacific security matters.

*Analysis published in the European Council on Foreign Relations by Frédéric Grare and entitled ‘Trumpism by another name: What AUKUS tells us about US policy in the Indo-Pacific’

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