Washington is going out of its way to make amends for having kept France in the dark on the submarine deal. Joe Biden came as close as a U.S. president ever comes to a public apology in the joint statement that followed his September 22 call with Emmanuel Macron. A statement from Quad leaders, days later, conspicuously welcomed the EU’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific. France’s Ambassador Philippe Etienne has returned to Washington and met with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who is promising the French “in-depth consultations on a range of strategic matters”. And there is more to come: I was told Biden may visit Macron in Paris later this month before travelling on to Rome for the G20 summit. But no one in Washington should think that a pat on the back and a few mea culpas will put this to rest.In the latest Watching China in Europe podcast, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, who served as France’s ambassador to China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan as well as as deputy foreign minister until 2019, described the AUKUS deal between Washington, London, and Canberra as a “shockwave.” He suggested that Paris would now push back more forcefully against U.S. pressure to refocus NATO on China: “Do we need to gather together all the countries alongside the U.S. to attack China? No.” Another French diplomat rejected any suggestion that Paris and Washington had moved on from the AUKUS episode: “There is a feeling out there that the Macron-Biden statement has ended this. We don’t see it that way.” I was told that the Élysée is rethinking the contours of a big Indo-Pacific event it plans to host in February, as one of the highlights of France´s EU Council presidency. Do not expect Australia or the United Kingdom to receive an invitation. Paris is putting the relationship with Canberra on ice until the next Australian election, expected in the spring of 2022, in the hope that voters boot out Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Neither does it seem inclined to listen to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pleas to “donnez-moi un break” or “prenez un grip”. The franglais jibes have only added fuel to a raging French fire.
Rapidly Closing WindowNone of this is good for efforts to mount a collective response to China. But it would wrong to put all the blame on the Biden administration and its Anglo allies. What the AUKUS deal shows above all is the sense of urgency in Washington and Canberra when it comes to China. The same sense of urgency is not there in Europe. Even French diplomats conceded to me that the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy lacked strategic teeth and will need to be made more “political” in the months ahead. “We are caught between our own unwillingness to step up and an American protector who is less interested,” a German defense official told me. As Tom Wright of Brookings noted recently, Europe and the United States face a rapidly closing window of opportunity to get on the same page and create facts on the ground while Biden is in office. How soon will it be before another “America First” president emerges in Washington or political changes in Europe make transatlantic cooperation an even harder sell? The conditions for such cooperation are much better now than they are likely to be in the years ahead.
Trade, Technology & ConnectivityThe TTC meeting in Pittsburgh offered glimmers of hope, with both sides committing to closer cooperation on export controls, investment screening, and standard setting. I was told that officials in Washington have also begun discreet discussions with partners like the Netherlands and Japan in a bid to forge a consensus, outside of the Wassenaar Arrangement, on export controls related to semiconductors. A common approach from like-minded countries on this important issue would send a strong signal. There are also signs that Europe is preparing to move on other China-related policies that have been stuck for years in a bureaucratic morass. It was encouraging to see European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen embrace a revamp of the EU’s connectivity strategy—renamed Global Gateway—in her state of the union speech in mid-September.Still, there are reasons to question whether the European Commission is serious about developing a real geopolitical alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as big member states have been urging. At the same time as it is touting Global Gateway, I learned, EU institutions are also poised to double down on connectivity cooperation with China, with the launch of a major $2 million study (with funding split between Brussels and Beijing) of rail transport corridors between Europe and China. The study, to be carried out by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, has raised eyebrows among some EU diplomats because it includes the possibility of rail corridors through countries like Iraq, Syria, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. Some see this as a use of EU taxpayer money to further Beijing’s BRI ambitions in its zones of interest. The European Commission will have to explain how this project fits with Global Gateway, an initiative that Von der Leyen has made clear is aimed at countering Beijing’s influence.