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France and US open rift over Indo-Pacific military pact

The honeymoon between U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders may be over after France expressed outrage over a decision by the White House to leave Paris out of a military pact in the Indo-Pacific.

(CN) — France expressed deep anger on Thursday after it was left out of an Indo-Pacific military pact among the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, canceling the latter country's $90 billion contract for a fleet of French attack submarines in the process.

In Paris, France's foreign minister called it a “stab in the back” by Western allies and he even likened U.S. President Joe Biden's “unilateral” move without consulting France to the unpredictable behavior of former President Donald Trump.

The row threatens to quickly sour relations between the European Union and the U.S. at a moment when it seemed that the transatlantic relationship was set for a revival with Biden in the White House. Only three months ago, European leaders and Biden were all smiles at a Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England, where they vowed to work together to tackle global crises and defend democratic values. The EU's difficult relations with the U.K., meanwhile, seem set to only worsen as they clash over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland and find a new balance following Britain's rocky exit from the bloc last year.

Biden announced the Indo-Pacific military pact on Wednesday afternoon in Washington — close to midnight in Paris and London and morning in Canberra. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — both hawkish conservatives and aligned with the U.S. in its Cold War-style campaign against China — joined Biden via video links.

Biden said the pact — dubbed AUKUS — “will bring together our sailors, our scientists, and our industries to maintain and expand our edge in military capabilities and critical technologies, such as cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea domains.”

Although they didn't mention China, the military deal is clearly another move by the U.S. to counter China's global rise. Chinese officials blasted the announcement and said it threatened regional peace.

Most crucially, the pact with Australia has the effect of cancelling a contract it signed in 2016 with the French company Naval Group to build 12 diesel-powered submarines. Australia instead will now build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with help from the U.S. and U.K. Morrison said the submarines will not be armed with nuclear weapons.

France, along with five other nations including China, Russia and India, has nuclear-powered submarines but Australia asked France to help it build diesel-powered submarines. Citing delays and cost overruns, Australia's conservative government said it now wants nuclear-powered submarines. French experts rejected Australia's complaints and viewed the submarine contract as being robbed by the U.S. and U.K.

In France, the submarine deal was labeled the “contract of the century” for French industry and it was helping bring the two countries closer together. With its territories in French Polynesia and about 2 million French nationals there, France has a lot at stake in the Pacific Ocean.

By Thursday morning, French officials were seething.

“I am angry, this is not done between allies,” France's foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said on France Info. “It's a stab in the back.”

He said Australia had betrayed the trust France had in it. He also took aim at Biden and said “this unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision is very similar to what Mr. Trump was doing.”

France is the EU's top military power since Britain's exit from the bloc and it is pushing other European nations to become more independent of Washington militarily and geopolitically. France's foreign policy has clashed often with American interests in the past. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, has said the EU should seek better relations with Russia.

This rupture and the NATO debacle in Afghanistan will likely fuel discussions in Europe over creating an EU army that can act on its own and safeguard European interests at a time of growing rivalry among the U.S., China and other powers.

On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on the EU to join forces and create a pan-European military force. Macron is expected to hold a summit next year about how the bloc can strengthen its military might.

In a statement, the French government said the “regrettable decision” by Australia to cancel the submarine contract “only reinforces the need to raise the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear.”

Benjamin Haddad, an international affairs expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, said relations between the U.S. and France are at their lowest point since 2003 when French President Jacques Chirac refused to follow the U.S. into war in Iraq.

“A stunning stab in the back of a key European ally involved in the Indo-Pacific,” he said, commenting on Twitter. “Everyone in Paris is shell shocked... and a major setback to a transatlantic strategy on China.”

Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the U.S., blasted the Biden administration for its treatment of France.

“The world is a jungle. France has just been reminded this bitter truth by the way the U.S. and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia," he said on Twitter. “What is striking is that the Biden administration didn’t do anything to cushion the blow it was deliberately delivering to France. No consultation, no association, no compensation.”

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace defended the pact and denied that the deal was about taking the contract away from France.

“We didn't go fishing for these opportunities,” he said in an interview on Sky News. “We have no intention of doing anything to antagonize the French. The French are some of our closest military allies in Europe.”

On Wednesday, Biden called France “a key partner and ally” in the Indo-Pacific region and one that the U.S. will work with closely. But he did not offer any other thoughts on France's role.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. Follow him on Twitter.

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