The US alliance with Australia and Britain against China has brought Europe closer to a question it has tried to avoid: Which side are you on?
BRUSSELS – Until this week, the so-called “pivot to Asia” by the United States was more of a threat to Europe than a reality. But that changed when the Biden administration announced a new defense coalition against China that has left Europe facing an implicit question:
which side are you on?
It’s a question European leaders have tried to avoid since former President Barack Obama said for the first time that the US should “pivot” resources and attention to Asia as part of its rivalry with China. European leaders hoped that relations between the two superpowers could remain stable and that Europe could balance its interests between the two.
Then the Trump administration sharply raised the temperature with tariffs and other trade barriers with China. And now the Biden administration on Wednesday announced an alliance between the United States, Britain and Australia that would help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific – and in doing so, a job for Australia. Also signed a $66 billion deal to buy the French. A fleet of diesel-powered subscriptions.
“Europeans want to avoid the moment of truth, not to choose between the two,” said Thomas Gomart, Director of the French Institute of International Relations or IFRI. “The Biden administration, like Trump, is provoking the moment of choice.”
France was furious. Yet if it was a disgrace – as well as the cancellation of a lucrative defense deal – it probably had a silver lining to France’s broader goals. French President Emmanuel Macron has been Europe’s biggest proponent of “strategic autonomy”, the idea that Europe needs to maintain a balanced approach to the United States and China.
“We must survive on our own, as others do,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fonteles, echoing the French line.
The French embarrassment – the Americans also announced the submarine deal with any warning if any – came after the disastrous fall of Afghanistan. European allies were furious with the Biden administration, accusing Americans of acting with little or no consultation, and pushing Macron’s argument that the United States is no longer a fully credible security partner.
“Submarines and Afghanistan, it reinforces the French narrative that you can’t trust the Americans,” said Ulrich Speck of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
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But whether France will succeed in this bilateral defeat by promoting strategic autonomy is questionable, analysts suggest. “Many Europeans will see this as a transparent way for the French to leverage their interests,” said Robin Niblet, director of Chatham House, a London-based research institute.
Still, there is no doubt that Europe’s balancing act is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.
“Europe needs to think seriously about where it sits and what it does,” said Carnegie Europe director Rosa Balfour. A Europe that spends more on defense is desired, but it also needs allies – including Britain and the United States, she said. And a Europe that does more to build its security capacity “is the best way to be heard more by its partners,” she said.
The alliance, known as AUKUS, is an effort to integrate Australia and Britain into a broader US effort to create a security deterrent for China. For Australia, which has once seen its strong ties with Beijing deteriorate, the US and UK provide much deterrence to China in the Indo-Pacific, with analysts agreeing a deal with France could be in the offing. .
“This is sending a huge signal to Beijing, which is useful for the US, but particularly useful for Australia,” said Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund and head of the Brussels office. “And the weight of that sign matters because of who the partners are.”
Mr Lesser also questioned why US moves in the Pacific should be interpreted as a zero-even equation in which Europe has diminished. “I don’t see any lack of commitment to American interests and European security in view of moves in Afghanistan or Asia,” he said.
The biggest issue for the EU may be the pursuit of political will for strategic autonomy, a point made by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. EU status address Earlier the day the Asian Alliance was announced.
France may be pushing for autonomy, but whether the rest of the European bloc is hungry for it – and to distance itself from Washington – is uncertain.
Mr Speck of the German Marshall Fund said, “France could isolate itself, noting that in almost every region where France has security concerns – Russia, the Sahel and even the Indo-Pacific. Including – the United States remains an important partner.
There are deep questions about the future credibility of the US as a security partner, especially if the conflict with China turns kinetic, which is part of Mr Macron’s argument, Mr Lesser acknowledged. “For all US commitments to Europe, if things go wrong in the Indo-Pacific, this will change the force structure in Europe very quickly.”
In Poland, a strong US ally in the European Union and NATO, the coalition’s response was more positive, focusing not on an axis away from Europe, but on the US, along with the British and Australians, getting serious about China. was living and defending the free world,” said Michael Baranowski, head of the German Marshall Fund office in Poland.
At the same time, he said, the Poles see another case where the supposedly professional, pro-European Biden administration “doesn’t consult again and pushes European allies under the bus,” he said. “This time the French, but for us, it was Nord Stream 2, when we were thrown under the bus to Germany,” he said. It was a reference to Mr Biden’s decision to allow the completion of a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and Poland, a priority of European powerhouse Berlin.
“The US will again say ‘we are building a strong alliance with Germany and Australia,’” Mr Baranowski said. “But who is the victim? The other allies.”
Ms Balfour of Carnegie Europe said Europeans would prefer not to keep Beijing angry as far as relations with China are concerned. “European allies have been more uncomfortable with a more aggressive stance on China” and are “deeply aware of the need to talk to China about climate and trade,” she said.
So if Europe can continue to talk to Beijing without being portrayed as joining a security pact against it by China, it could be helpful, she said. “If there is any hope in this, it will be that the EU is able to play this card diplomatically, and avoid painting the world in China’s favor or against China, which Beijing has been pushing.”