Under Water

For sale?

A memorable childhood event of mine was a tour of a French navy submarine in Cork Harbour. At the time, the Cold War meant that the contours of the world order were rigidly set. Today, the debacle over the cancelled sale of French submarines by Australia, and the creation of a new military alliance AUKUS (Australia, UK and the US) illustrates the rapidly changing world order, and the many dilemmas this will present for Europe.  

For the second time in weeks, the US has enacted a strategic decision (the exit from Afghanistan being the first) that has been motivated by a need to face down China, that has left transatlantic relations in tatters, and whose execution has been careless.

The US led move to coral Australia and the UK into ‘AUKUS’ is yet another event that unambiguously heralds the end of a globalized world, and the formation of a multipolar one. In the globalized world the US was the singular power, it didn’t need to fear China and so dominant it provided a military comfort blanket for Europe. Now, in a multipolar world, where at least three large regions (US, China, EU) do things in very different ways, new geopolitical gangs are springing up.

For instance, the English-speaking geopolitical world will now give greater credence to the Five Eyes intelligence gathering alliance (UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia). In addition, the Quad Alliance of India, Japan, Australia and the US has taken on added importance though India is getting much less out of this than Australian in terms of hardware. AUKUS builds on these relationships and helps the UK by giving it a risky geopolitical role it could not have conceived by itself. Standing off against them is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) whose principle active members are China, Russia and Pakistan.

More specifically, submarines have often had a costly political impact – they have for example been the centre of corruption scandals in Greece, Portugal and Pakistan/France in recent decades. The Australian decision to renege on the contract with France’s Naval Group was not without warning, but apparent assurances from Australian and American officials to French counterparts in recent weeks has understandably produced an apoplectic reaction in Paris. France may ultimately not regret losing the chance to pit itself against China in the South China Sea, but it is upset that its stock of power in Washington has been diminished.

If France feels aggressed by the Australian-US move, think of how China may react. The underlying threat behind the US deal to sell submarines to Australia is that, as some speculate, nuclear weapons might follow. Indeed, the blueprint for the next development wave of the US navy, called BattleForce 2045, is heavily focused on manned and unmanned submarines, at a huge financial cost.  By 2045the plan is that attack submarines will be the largest component of the US navy, with dozens of Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vessels (XLUUV’s ) buzzing the seafloor.

As it stands, China has a numerically larger navy than the US, but a far less proficient one.

The kerfuffle that the AUKUS announcement has created diminishes any sense of surprise – China has at least a decade to prepare for the arrival of Australia’s nuclear submarines! It can do several things – for example shift trade and financial flows away from Australia, build more island bases in its maritime hinterland and invest more in hacking naval vessels (see Admiral James Stavridis recent book ‘2034’).

What military strategists may be missing is that by the time Australia takes delivery of its new American nuclear subs, the demographics of China will have dramatically changed in that there will be many older, retired people, and as the recent case of Evergrande suggests, China could have suffered a sharp economic downturn (which would also sink the Australian economy). Both trends suggest that economics rather than submarines will determine the outcome of the strategic contest between the US and China.

The result of this deepening rivalry, and apparent estrangement of Europe by Washington should convince even the most naïve European leaders that they need to work very hard to make Europe a relevant geopolitical player. That France is the target of the latest snub speaks to its role as the most significant military player in Europe, and still underlines the reality that Paris (though Macron) is the source of political energy across Europe.

So, for Europe that challenge is to now make a credible effort to build and exercise its own power, or what Macron calls strategic autonomy. Tangibly it points toward an EU army. Europe’s ‘power’ does not need to be conceived of solely in military terms, but can be financial, diplomatic and institutional.

A range of factors will shape this. Ideally, French diplomacy will become less introspective, and would also take heed of the views of other European nations, especially Poland and the Baltic states as regards Russia. Much will also depend on the identity and views of the next German leader, but it is very clear now that Europe needs to commit greater economic resources and political energy to the many aspects of what constitute ‘security’ – from energy to cyberwar to immigration policy to heavy military transport.

The repercussions will ripple far and wide. For instance, this week Ireland chaired the UN General Assembly, and for it the AUKUS spat is the equivalent of Ireland’s cousins attacking its new best friend.

I haven’t even mentioned Russia. Perhaps they will buy the French subs!

Have a great week ahead,


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