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Transatlantic cooperation on China hits choppy waters

Australia, the US and the UK announced a new trilateral security partnership (AUKUS) to confront China in the Indo-Pacific only hours before the EU released its new strategy to play a bigger role in the area through stronger regional partnerships. The move damaged transatlantic ties and, in particular, hit France as Australia ditched a EUR 50 bn contract for French submarines to acquire US nuclear-powered alternatives via AUKUS.

By excluding Brussels and Paris from the alliance, Washington signaled its impatience with the EU’s approach to relations with Beijing and its skepticism that Europe will become a relevant security partner in the Indo-Pacific in the near term. The move called into question the future of European involvement in the region on the very day the EU published its new Indo-Pacific Strategy. Championed by France, it was meant to give new momentum to Brussels’ efforts to become a more relevant actor in the Indo-Pacific. 

Australia, the US and the UK reportedly failed to inform Brussels or Paris ahead of their announcement. This infuriated the French government, which recalled its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington and now appears to be pushing Brussels to postpone the inaugural meeting of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council. Should perceptions of US disloyalty take root in the EU, AUKUS will likely increase tensions between Europe and the US just as ties were reviving after the Trump presidency. This could make US ambitions to get Europe to more actively confront China even more of a long shot.  

At the same time, Australia’s acquisition of US submarine technology will only make China double down on military buildup and modernization – and could be even more uncompromising with AUKUS partners. With tensions in the Indo-Pacific region set to rise, Beijing will likely try to take advantage of any transatlantic rift to reach out to Paris and Brussels. China will look for an opportunity to bring EU-China ties back on track by using developments to further push its point that Washington is an unreliable partner.

MERICS analysis: “Coming just weeks after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the AUKUS announcement will increase concerns across Europe that the EU can’t rely on the US,” said Helena Legarda, Senior Analyst at MERICS. “The agreement will lend new urgency to calls for more European strategic autonomy and defense cooperation. This could hinder EU-US cooperation on dealing with China in a number of policy fields.” 

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