Francid is furious. Theresa May is worried. The announcement of the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States (Aukus) alliance and the abandonment of a previous Franco-Australian agreement on submarines led the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian , to call the pact a “stab in the back”, while the former British Prime Minister worries that Britain is drawn into a war for the future of Taiwan.
Surprisingly, Beijing’s reaction has been rather quiet. Yes, he accused the West of a “cold war mentality”, and Xi Jinping warned foreigners not to interfere in the region, but his warning that China “would be closely monitoring the situation” was close to a “cut and paste” indignation. .
Aukus is more significant for what it reveals about the thinking of the three partners than the actual content of the pact. Some observers qualify it as a “nuclear” agreement when it is not; submarines are not the nuclear weapon-carrying Tridents seen in the BBC drama Vigil, but ships powered by nuclear energy, giving them greater range. For the West, Aukus shows the real fear that the next President of the United States is either Donald Trump or one of his apostles. Boris Johnson spoke in a firm tone about Aukus which has lasted for “decades”: the tacit implication is, regardless of the presidents of the United States during this period, Aukus aims to bind the States- United to long-term security in Asia-Pacific.
In a less obvious way, it is also a question of linking the United States to European security in a world where NATO is perhaps less relevant. This week, France has every reason to be sorry to lose its Australian alliance and its submarine contract. But over the next decade, expect to see a rather different arrangement: the UK and France will both be the pillars of a European security order (with a nascent European force). And the association with Aukus brings the most important stabilizing price – the presence of the United States firmly allied with a great European power (albeit non-EU).
China’s Cold War rhetoric misses an important point: the structures of that time were binary and rigid. But Aukus suggests that liberal order can be reconstituted through “minilateral” agreements, in which different constellations of power act together on different issues. The “Quad” of Japan, Australia, India and the United States is the best known example to date, but Aukus may be a sign of more to come. These agreements may anger individual members of that order in the short term (British anger against the United States against Afghanistan, French anger against Australia against Aukus), but they actually show that the liberal order is more robust than surface noise suggests. This is not a cold war, but a series of constantly evolving adaptations.
Beijing seems to know this, which may be why its response seemed so lukewarm. China will be less concerned about the specifics of Aukus, as there is already a lot of Western military equipment in the region. The real challenge for China is, why do so few of its neighbors support its complaints about the New Deal? Singapore, a country that has spent decades balancing the US and China in the region, expressed hope that Aukus “complete regional architectureWhich sounded more like an elegant Georgian fireplace than a deal on lethal weapons. China’s failure over the past two decades has not been its failure to withdraw the United States from the region, but its failure to continue to persuade local countries that leaving the United States would be a good idea.
Aukus’ Achilles heel may not be in security, but in another area: commerce. China is the biggest partner of all its neighbors and is part of only one major trading bloc in the region, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. A British Foreign Policy Group report this week, which I co-wrote, predicted that a decision to join the CPTPP would be part of China’s strategy to improve the regional narrative around it. The day after Aukus’ announcement, Beijing declared its official candidacy to join the partnership.
It is a smart decision, but also a risky one. The CPTPP demands a series of standards for trade and, above all, labor, which are certainly weaker than EU rules but still more demanding than those of China itself. Beijing has weight and may be able to negotiate its own terms more freely than the smaller members. But his entry may well include talks with what appears to be the partnership’s newest member in 2022 – the UK, which will be the group’s second-largest economy after Japan. If the UK can figure out how to contribute to a process that brings China to higher standards in trade and labor rights, while keeping Aukus alive, that would be a real contribution to the idea of ’Great -Worldwide Britain ”.
It was Donald Trump who pulled the United States out of the TPP, the pact’s predecessor. China’s attempted entry may well entice the Americans to return; which would mean that Aukus’ greatest irony might be that the world’s two largest economies are becoming more divided on security and simultaneously more closely linked through trade.
Rana Mitter is Professor of Modern Chinese History and Politics, University of Oxford, and co-author (with Sophia Gaston) of the report UK-China engagement reset: update 2021