(CNN) — In Washington, sooner or later, it all comes down to China.
The Biden administration justifies US policy on infrastructure, the economy and even on public services by the need to strengthen the country to better compete with China. America’s foreign policy is increasingly organized as an attempt to counter the rising great power. President Joe Biden goes on to say that he had to leave Afghanistan because China loved that the United States was bogged down there. Let’s take some of the biggest issues shaking Washington, the covid-19 pandemic and the fight against climate change, and China is at the center of them. The furor over Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book on Donald Trump’s final days in office was further heated by claims that the top US military official called his Chinese counterparts to assure them that the then-president would not attack.
China’s perceived power is so great that the idea that it poses a threat is on the only issue on which Republicans and Democrats, supporters of Trump and Biden can agree. Biden has put democracy promotion at the center of his presidency, no need to guess why. And China’s President Xi Jinping has assumed a hulking personality. Both the current president and the former president have publicly bragged about their phone calls with the Chinese leader to highlight their own status and toughness.
It is perhaps a comment on America’s waning prestige as the dominant global power after the tumultuous first two decades of the 21st century in which so many leaders spent so much time defining the country in the face of America’s next great adversary.
America is racing to catch up. Hopes from the dawn of the 2000s that introducing China into the world economic system would inexorably promote domestic political freedoms and a placid global partner were sunk. Now, Washington’s response must be built quickly on the fly.
In this context, it is not surprising that France was trampled by Washington’s fixation on China this week. The Biden administration signed an agreement for Paris to build conventional submarines for Australia with a new strategic alliance with Canberra and London that will see stealth nuclear-powered ships shipped.
Understandably, the French erupted with fury, motivated by more than shame in Paris, because Washington had prioritized an Anglophone pact over its older alliance.
‘A stab in the back’
The deal was announced suddenly, disregarding France’s global ambitions or France’s self-image as a major power, and totally overshadowed Europe’s own revelation of its own Indo-Pacific policy.
“Politely speaking, it’s a real stab in the back,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on French radio on Thursday in remarks that were far from polite. That hit was for Australia. But he was no less sparing with the United States. Months after Biden went to Europe and declared that America was back, Le Drian blasted the final insult.
“This is a decision that is one-sided, brutal, unpredictable. It really seems like something Mr. Trump would do,” he said.
The word “unpredictable” was a real blow. European leaders did not expect to agree with Biden on everything. But they at least hoped that the sudden changes in American policy that would have dire consequences for their own security, which were a feature of Trump’s tenure, would be replaced by a return of diplomatic civility.
The flapping over Australia will do nothing to mitigate an impression on the other side of the Atlantic, fueled by Biden’s lack of communication with the allies about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has a narrow interpretation of US interests and him. It matters little how their actions might complicate the political position of the Allied leaders. Biden, for all his heralds of a return to the alliances, appears to be acquiring a reputation for clumsiness with allies that the United States will need in a pinch.
But it is unlikely that Biden set out to deliberately antagonize France. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who grew up there in part, did his best to defuse the controversy: “France, in particular, is a vital partner on this and many other issues that go back to previous generations, and we want to find every opportunity to deepen our transatlantic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and around the world. ” His comment was a reference to France’s belief that, given its territories in the region, it has a vital role and a clear conviction that it has been betrayed. As the French ambassador to the United States, Philippe Étienne, told Hala Gorani on CNN International: “We want to be part of the strategies in the Indo-Pacific.”
The United States ‘will not leave Australia alone’
But while the transatlantic alliance remains a cornerstone of US foreign policy, the current episode makes clear that it is no longer the dominant one. During the Cold War, the main threat to the United States centered on Europe and the challenge of the Soviet Union. His next big enemy is in Asia, so it is not surprising that his focus is directed there. If then-President Barack Obama engineered a turn to Asia, Biden is presiding over a headlong race there. This means that there is a new reality in Washington that America’s traditional allies will have to adjust to.
Still, the decision on the submarines could have implications for other areas of foreign policy. The extremely rare move by the United States to share technology with Australia at the nuclear plants that power the ships could weaken its arguments against nuclear proliferation elsewhere – in negotiations with Iran, for example.
The deal between the US, Australia and the UK came with such compelling political and geostrategic advantages for each, that France would not have a chance to block the submarine deal, had it known. (Étienne said that the first time Paris found out was in the Australian and American press.)
The entire focus of Biden’s foreign policy is on China’s growing challenge. And senior administration officials say they are alarmed by Beijing’s increasingly aggressive and nationalistic approach toward Taiwan, the South China Sea and toward US allies such as Australia. Washington’s response is to draw its allies into a broad anti-China coalition.
“The United States will not leave Australia alone on the field in the face of these pressure tactics,” Blinken said Thursday.
“We have raised publicly and privately our serious concerns about Beijing’s use of economic coercion against Australia.”
The government of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been alarmed by fierce economic and diplomatic pressure from China. Indeed, he has now chosen side in any new Cold War between Washington and Beijing. The introduction of a new Australian fleet of nuclear-powered submarines will not transform the geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific region. But coupled with allied international forces that Washington sees share its burden of safeguarding free navigation there amid Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims, it could help shape the balance of power. In another step in his campaign, Biden will host a summit next week in Washington, including Morrison and the other two members of the so-called Indo-Pacific Group powers, India and Japan, in another unmistakable sign for China.
Post-Brexit Britain under Prime Minister Boris Johnson has two overwhelming foreign policy goals: to project a global force independent of its former European partners, and to draw close to the Biden administration. The Anglophone alliance represents a mission accomplished both ways and a propaganda victory against Brussels. The UK currently has one of its two new supercarriers deployed to Asia in a sign of its intention. That and Australia’s decision to seek American sensitive technology for its submarines may indicate that Washington is paying close attention to allies who demonstrate their commitment to its Indo-Pacific policy with military influence and diplomatic support.
We will have to think seriously among European leaders. While Britain and Australia have now fully joined in Biden’s efforts to contain China, France, Germany and European Union leaders have been more cautious, seemingly seeking a middle way between two great powers.
The last days prove that making that decision has consequences.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism