On Thursday, Sept. 15, President Biden, along with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australia counterpart Scott Morison, announced a new defense initiative with Britain to help Australia develop and deploy a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The initiative signifies a new era of American involvement in the Indo-Pacific, as well as changing alliances with European nations.
In his four years in office, former President Donald J. Trump steered America away from foreign involvement to achieve what he called “America First”. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement. He was also highly critical of NATO, claiming it was “from the days of the Soviet Union” and no longer worth American money and personnel. Trump centered his administration’s foreign policies around trade. In his speeches, he frequently cited how countries, especially China and those in the European Union have been taking advantage of the U.S. economically. As a response, Trump launched the so-called trade war with China. He also imposed several significant tariffs on the European Union.
When President Biden entered office in January, he made revitalizing international relations a priority. “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” Biden states in a speech to the Department of State. Biden also sees China as a growing threat, both economically and militarily. In recent years, China has been rapidly militarizing its territory that stretches into the Pacific.
The submarines the U.S. and Britain plan to help Australia develop would be propelled by nuclear reactors, instead of diesel-electricity. Nuclear-powered submarines could remain stealthy underwater for longer periods, making them harder to detect. It is important to note that these submarines would not carry nuclear weapons. Only Russia, the U.S., Britain, France, China, and India currently possess submarines that run on nuclear power.
The submarine deal and the new trilateral alliance, known as AUKUS, however, angered France. “It’s really a stab in the back,” said France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Derain. Following the unveil of AUKUS, Australia also announced its withdrawal from a $66-billion deal to purchase non-nuclear-powered submarines from France signed in 2016. Instead, the fund will go to American and British military industries. Apart from the financial loss, France also voiced its discontent for being excluded from the alliance. The French government has recalled its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia. It also canceled the celebration for the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Capes, a decisive battle won by the Americans during the War of Independence with help from the French navy.
This new submarine deal is a prime example of the shift in policymaking of the Biden administration to counter China. The Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. denounced the alliance for having a “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice”. Nonetheless, the deal also jeopardizes the United States’ relationship with France, the nation’s oldest ally, and risks trust and future cooperation with other European countries. “I’m really angry. What worries me is the behavior of the Americans,” Le Derain remarked after he referred to the deal as a back-stab, “This unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision looks a lot like what Mr. Trump used to do.”