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Will AUKUS Hit China Where It Hurts?

The submarine deal could reshape the balance of power in the Pacific—and draw Australia into future conflicts.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Sheean arrives for a logistics port visit on Apr. 1 in Hobart, Australia.
Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Sheean arrives for a logistics port visit on Apr. 1 in Hobart, Australia. Leo Baumgartner/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you are enjoying the first few days of autumn.

Hey, I have a question for you. I was invited to a small group dinner with France’s ambassador last Wednesday and it was canceled at the last minute. Any idea why he was unavailable?

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! I hate to be the bearer of bad news for Washington’s think tank community, but it looks like the French won’t be hosting gourmet dinners or elegant soirees at the embassy anytime soon. They’re pretty angry at the United States, and it’s all the result of AUKUS.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you are enjoying the first few days of autumn.

Hey, I have a question for you. I was invited to a small group dinner with France’s ambassador last Wednesday and it was canceled at the last minute. Any idea why he was unavailable?

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! I hate to be the bearer of bad news for Washington’s think tank community, but it looks like the French won’t be hosting gourmet dinners or elegant soirees at the embassy anytime soon. They’re pretty angry at the United States, and it’s all the result of AUKUS.

MK: We really should avoid offending countries that are so good at entertaining.

But, of course, that’s the reason. For those who haven’t been paying attention, the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia announced a big, new strategic partnership that includes selling multiple nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. As a result, Australia canceled a preexisting submarine deal with France. France is upset and has recalled its ambassadors to both Canberra and Washington. Fortunately, U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke on the phone earlier this week, so there is hope for healing the rift in the relationship—and for future soirees.

What is your take on this episode?

This is probably the worst crisis in French-American relations since the 1960s.

EA: “AUKUS” sounds like a dying seagull, and it was received about as warmly by the French, who recalled their ambassador from Washington and canceled the gala celebrations of the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes. Those are both pretty extreme steps. And to make it worse, French leadership has publicly described the incident as a “stab in the back” moment from a close ally. In short, this is probably the worst crisis in French-American relations since Charles de Gaulle pulled out of NATO’s joint command in the 1960s.

It’s not hard to see why the French are upset. On the economic side, they just lost a $60 billion defense contract, which supported jobs and exports in France. And on the diplomatic side, they were apparently completely blindsided; the Biden administration left notification up to the Australians, who didn’t actually tell the French in advance of the announcement.

MK: I also understand Paris’s anger. But let’s focus on the bigger strategic picture first. Overall, this is a good deal for the United States and the free world. The military balance in Asia is shifting in China’s favor, Washington wants to maintain a favorable balance in the region, but it cannot do it all on its own. It needs its allies to do more. So these capable Australian submarines help in that regard.

EA: So I suspect you are right that this is probably a good move for the United States over the long term, even if executed poorly. But let me play devil’s advocate here for a moment, because I do think there are some serious concerns we should consider.

First, Biden is alienating France, which not only is one of the more militarily capable members of NATO but is also technically an Indo-Pacific power. There are 1.5 million French citizens who live in the Indo-Pacific region, which is one reason why France has actually been pretty responsive to U.S. calls for Europe to do more in the region.

MK: OK. This is an important issue. Let’s return to it in a moment.

EA: Second, I’m no submarine expert, but I understand there’s a debate about whether these subs will add substantially to Australian defense capabilities. They may be exactly what Australia needs—as Andrew Erickson argued here in Foreign Policy earlier this week—allowing the Royal Australian Navy to patrol larger areas more effectively. But equally, as Sam Roggeveen has pointed out, they will take a long time to get built and are extremely expensive to build and operate, limiting how useful they can really be for actual defense of the many sea approaches to Australia. Plus, they raise some serious nuclear proliferation concerns.

Submarines are good at sinking enemy ships, and China is terrible at anti-submarine warfare.

MK: I think these submarines are relevant to the military problem in the Indo-Pacific. Nuclear propulsion gives Australia the range and speed it needs to cover long distances. And, as former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy has said, the best way to deter China from invading Taiwan is to have the ability to sink China’s navy in 72 hours. Submarines are good at sinking enemy ships, and China is terrible at anti-submarine warfare. Despite Beijing’s efforts, it struggles with the hard problems of detecting and destroying mobile, underwater targets. Geography is also a factor, as China’s navy is hemmed in by land features mostly controlled by U.S. allies and partners, whereas China’s enemies have the advantage of approaching from vast and deep seas and oceans. So this deal hits Beijing where it hurts.

EA: Whoa there! I seriously doubt that’s what the Australians think they’re committing to here. This is undoubtedly a big bet for them on the future stability of a U.S.-Australian defense partnership, but I suspect they’re far more focused on deterrence—and potentially on defense if necessary—than they are on the offensive capabilities of these subs.

MK: In peacetime, these capabilities will likely be used for patrolling the South China Sea and keeping sea lines of communication open. But, in the event of a major conflict, I think this deal makes it more likely that Australia joins the fight. After all, the Aussies have fought side by side with the United States in every major war over the past century, including World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

And how is threatening to sink an invading force an “offensive” capability? That sounds like defense to me.

EA: Are we expecting the Chinese to invade Australia? Because if you’re talking about attacking a Chinese force invading Taiwan, that’s a very different thing. And while I’d never claim to speak for the Aussies, I am pretty confident that is not something they are committing to with this deal.

MK: I agree there is no commitment along these lines. But this move makes it more likely that Australia would join a fight over Taiwan. And it is a possibility that Beijing now needs to take into account.

EA: Look, broadly I agree with you that this is a good move from the point of view of signaling that the United States takes the Pacific region seriously, and it helps to build defense ties with a key regional ally. The basing arrangements announced at the same time—which allow U.S. and British submarines to use Australian ports—are perhaps even more significant. But we do have to be careful that it doesn’t give the impression that the United States is trying to militarize the region.

Stephen Walt had a great article here in Foreign Policy the other day where he made a similar point: Asian states broadly want peace and security. They will not align with the United States if it seems like Washington is destabilizing the region. So while I think this is broadly a good move, Americans do have to be careful in how they talk about its implications.

MK: Fair enough. But there is a good story to tell. China is the country with maritime and territorial disputes with many of its neighbors. China is the country saying it will use force to resolve them. China is the country engaged in a massive military buildup and that now possesses more warships and missiles in the region than any other country. So status quo-oriented powers, such as Australia, enhancing their defensive capabilities contributes to peace and stability. China is the destabilizing force.

EA: Look, China has been problematic in many ways in recent years, including its territorial disputes with its neighbors. And the countries of the Anglosphere are already natural partners with strong historical ties and a working intelligence alliance in the Five Eyes. It makes sense to build on this partnership. I just don’t think it necessarily signals what you want: a commitment from Australia to a forward-leaning military denial strategy toward China.

But can we get back to the broader geopolitical questions for a second?

MK: Yes. beyond what this means for the military balance, this deal features a European, North American, and Pacific country working together to counter the China threat. I suspect this surprise announcement shocked Beijing.

EA: Though I think you could make a strong argument that the Chinese request on the same day to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)—the successor agreement to the U.S.-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership—was the more significant development in the region?

Washington’s unwillingness to pursue big trade deals in Asia and Europe is a strategic mistake.

MK: I’m not sure which is more significant, but certainly Washington’s unwillingness to pursue big trade deals in Asia and Europe is a strategic mistake. And if Beijing joins the CPTPP, that would make matters even worse.

EA: Sadly, there seems to be no appetite in Washington to rejoin the CPTPP or to pursue any further trade deals. In today’s Washington, free trade is as dead as a dodo.

MK: I agree. Returning to AUKUS for a moment, the diplomacy was botched. France is an important—and America’s oldest—ally. Washington, London, and Canberra should have included Paris in this deal, perhaps by arranging for France to sell Australia other types of military equipment. That would have allowed France to pursue its Indo-Pacific strategy, avoid public embarrassment, and retain some revenue for its defense industry.

It is not too late, however. As you point out, these submarines will not be finished for a decade or more. I hope that the allies can find some way to bring France back into the fold.

That said, I do think France is overreacting a bit. Paris didn’t recall its ambassador from China for its genocide or from Russia when it invaded its neighbors. But recalling ambassadors from multiple allies is the appropriate response to losing out on an arms deal?

EA: The French reaction reminded me a little of the exaggerated way in which football players—soccer for all you Americans out there—sometimes act when they get fouled on the pitch, looking to get a penalty out of the referee.

MK: You mean the “field.”

EA: I’ve been watching too much Ted Lasso, apparently. I’ve forgotten how to talk to Americans.

My point is that there was a real potential injury, but the reaction from the French was a bit disproportionate and focused on making the point publicly. The reaction certainly played into long-running French priorities such as the push for greater European strategic autonomy, structured along French lines. It certainly plays into the historical distrust that the French have of the United States on defense issues.

And that’s not necessarily good for us. We want the Europeans to be more militarily capable and more willing to fight their own battles. We don’t want them completely going their own way. As it is, we’re already having trouble convincing European states to work with the United States on China issues when they might have commercial interests at stake. Greater defense autonomy for Europe while still cooperating on key issues is a difficult needle to thread for any administration, but this sub deal definitely didn’t manage it.

MK: Agreed. You mentioned another potential downside to this deal: nuclear proliferation. You are right that some experts have raised this. But this is a stretch. I just don’t think that Australia operating nuclear-powered (not nuclear-armed) submarines has any bearing on whether a country like Iran decides to build nuclear weapons or not.

EA: I have been amused by how often news outlets needed to emphasize that these subs aren’t actually armed with nuclear weapons. But I think you’re wrong on this. The fuel for nuclear submarines is explicitly excluded from the restrictions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For U.S. submarines, that’s highly enriched uranium, which is suitable for bomb-making.

Now I don’t think the Aussies are going to go out and make a nuclear weapon anytime soon. But since the only existing states with nuclear-powered submarines are also nuclear weapons states, this is a new and worrying loophole. What happens when the South Koreans—with two nuclear-armed neighbors and a history of weapons development—decide they, too, want a similar submarine? What if the Iranians decide to buy them from China?

MK: The Iranians have threatened to enrich to very high levels for a potential future nuclear submarine program, but it is pretty clear this would just be a cover for a bomb program. And Tehran always finds a way to behave badly with or without good excuses. I am less worried about Australian submarines setting a precedent.

But there were other events in world politics this week. Did you watch the big speeches from the U.N. General Assembly?

EA: I heard the secretary-general lectured everyone about avoiding a new cold war between the United States and China. It would be good advice, if only anyone listened to the U.N. secretary-general.

I thought Biden’s speech was a bit of a dud, though. I appreciated his sentiment that the United States is moving from endless war to “relentless diplomacy,” but as one commentator noted, the speech was more like a random collection of Biden’s greatest hits: democracy, foreign policy for the middle class, and the idea that “America is back.” What about you?

MK: It was fine. It was an innocuous speech, hitting some feel-good themes about global cooperation to address shared challenges, like pandemics. He could have used it to go into detail on some of the big issues on people’s minds, including China (which he didn’t mention by name), Afghanistan, and the AUKUS deal. So, in that sense, I think it was a bit of a missed opportunity.

EA: That sounds about right. This was one of the first big in-person gatherings after the COVID-19 pandemic began; it would have been nice to see a more ambitious speech. Perhaps world leaders were just anxious about having to be in a room with the Brazilian delegation? It seems like every time Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro travels abroad, someone in his entourage infects someone else with COVID-19!

But look, I have to go. There’s a new Ted Lasso episode, and the way things have been going lately, I need my weekly dose of optimism. Care to join me? You might actually learn the real names for football terms.

MK: Maybe I should. I haven’t seen it yet, but I hear it hauled in the Emmy awards this week. And I’m still waiting on that next invitation to spend an evening at the French Embassy…

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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