25th Oct 2021


AUKUS ruckus may blow over but transatlantic scars run deep

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On the off-chance you are bored with the humanitarian crisis, chaos and uncertainty in Afghanistan, here's something to take your mind of life's grim stuff: AUKUS.

The headline-grabbing trilateral security alliance which brings together America's Joe Biden, Britain's Boris Johnson and Australia's Scott Morrisson - also known as the "fella Down Under" - AUKUS is now set to occupy our mindspace for… the next ten minutes.

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  • More than the 2008 financial crisis, the war in Syria, the mess in Libya or the cringe-inducing Trump years, the Afghan debacle has put an end to any magical belief in the West being able to provide benign global leadership

Yes, America is back.

But whatever Biden may have said at the UN General Assembly last week, diplomacy certainly isn't. Neither is trust.

There seems to have been a sort of half-hearted reconciliation between Biden and France's president Emmanuel Macron over the secretive US-Australia nuclear submarine deal, which scuppered Melbourne's earlier promise to buy French submarines.

But the scars run deep.

Fellow democracies – aka 'like-minded' nations - stabbing each other in the back is certainly not a good signal to send to a closely watching world.

For all the drama, the scenario was written in the stars.

Biden's moves to get back in the driver's seat as top global honcho was always going to rock an already-shaky transatlantic alliance.

Washington's globe-trotting emissaries may not have noticed but times have changed. And it's not just about the enhanced chirpiness of China and Russia and Turkey and Iran and Venezuela.

Even much-disdained Europe has not stood still after Biden's predecessor took a sledgehammer to EU-US ties.

More than the 2008 financial crisis, the war in Syria, the mess in Libya or the cringe-inducing Trump years, the Afghan debacle has put an end to any magical belief in the West being able to provide benign global leadership.

US/UK/Australia 'bromance'

Countries can see through the double standards. And they are especially irked when treated like clueless children in need of neo-colonial scoldings.

As Beijing is finding out, states don't like being subservient to an increasingly assertive China either.

Preoccupied with their glittering three-way bromance, 'Anglosphere' chiefs in Washington, London and Melbourne aren't having any of this anti-imperial 'wokeness'. Time, for them, has stood still.

Additionally, the AUKUS story – with the added lustre provided by Japan and India eagerly joining the anti-China "Quad" - is a godsend to those exhausted by all the depressing Afghan stuff.

Others are relieved. Reporting on geopolitical grandstanding is less harrowing than covering the tragic spectacle of desperate people jumping off planes or reflecting on the grim future facing hapless Afghan refugees as they seek out new homes.

AUKUS offers an old-fashioned rose-tinted picture of good guys ganging up against a nasty foreign enemy, democrats against autocrats, secretive arms deals and nuclear submarines.

Boys will be boys.

Thanks to the French, we have now also witnessed a masterclass in the art of the Great Geopolitical Sulk. So, please, what's there not to love?

Luckily, despite initial anger and passion some of the nastier EU reflexes, including postponing a much-touted meeting of the first Transatlantic Trade and Tech Council, have been shelved.

Not clear yet is whether France will succeed in putting off EU plans for a trade deal with Australia.

Europeans' indignation and sense of injury are understandably heightened by the tongue lashing they received from 'Anglosphere' officials, think-tankers and journalists over last year's EU investment deal inked with China.

And how frustrating also that the story of AUKUS was revealed just as the EU, after months of hard work, was finally ready to go public with its much-anticipated new Indo-Pacific strategy.

But despite the hand-wringing and the angst, EU policymakers would be well-advised not to be put off by curmudgeonly nay-sayers.

The public unveiling of bloc's much-touted Indo-Pacific outreach may have been over-shadowed by excitement over AUKUS but that's par for the course.

What matters is that Indo-Pacific countries, which are just as wary as the EU is about being squeezed between the US and China, want to trade with Europe, host European investors and yes, even talk to the EU about things like piracy, illegal fishing and maritime awareness.

Despite all that talk of submarines, frigates, warships and preparations for war – cold or hot - the real story of the Indo-Pacific is about peaceful economic integration.

Significantly, China and Taiwan have applied to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that the US walked away from under Trump. Countries across the region (minus India) are also members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The Indo-Pacific's connectivity agenda may be dominated by China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are also busy building transport networks in the region while the EU's "Global Gateway" initiative is attracting attention.

Still, the EU would be wise not to become too complacent about its Indo-Pacific future. The emphasis on ASEAN is important but excluding central and south Asia from the strategy is clumsy and self-defeating.

As US-China rivalries heat up, Europeans will be asked to join all kinds of new and exciting macho military alliances to show the world just who is boss.

The temptation to join the bandwagon should be resisted.

As Afghanistan has just sadly illustrated, there are times when military power is of limited use. And that's a message for Beijing and Washington and its Anglosphere allies.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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