The United States announced a new partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom this week, to share cutting-edge technologies. The pact sparks the anger of France. The country is calling back its ambassadors from the US and Australia this weekend.
Why? Part of the agreement is that Australia buys a fleet of US nuclear submarines. The country cancels $40 billion submarine order from France. “The French are angry and thats quite understandable,” says Danny Pronk, security researcher at Clingendael. “The deal wasnt just one.”
The Pact is therefore a financial poise for the French, but they also feel passed on a military-strategic level. Because Anglo-Saxon cooperation is mainly seen as an attempt to form a new front against China. So a front without France.
Pronk describes the pact as an illustration of the shifts of power, and the hardening of the struggle between America and China. “China is increasingly capable of asserting military power in the South China Sea.”
China considers that sea, rich in fish, oil and gas, to be Chinese. “They make a claim in the field. A nuclear submarine enables Australia to counterbalance.”
Pronk calls the pact remarkable, especially since it is at odds with international agreements to limit the spread of nuclear resources.
With a fleet of nuclear submarines, Australia is getting a massive attack force in one fell swoop, says Jaime Karremann. Karremann used to work in the Royal Navy and is now editor-in-chief of Marineschepen.nl, the ships dont carry nuclear weapons themselves, but they do have a nuclear propulsion.
“This allows them to stay underwater for months. They can track other ships and they are very fast. They dont have to go back until theyre out of stock and the crew wants to leave, because the nuclear reactor just keeps energizing.”
A nuclear submarine costs billions of euros apiece. According to Karreman, thats because theres so much technology in it. “You have a small nuclear reactor on a small area, where people work next to it. Then it has to be a silent reactor. The latter in particular is very difficult.”
“Moreover, a submarine is still very difficult to detect. And a torpedo can effortlessly break another ship in half if necessary. Theres still no really tested countermeasure against torpedoes.”
In addition to France, the European Union was totally surprised by the announced pact. The US, UK and Australia did not tell Brussels they were working on the military alliance “and we regret that,” said EU foreign chief Josep Borrell. “I suppose its been a good time working on it.”
China, which has dozens of nuclear submarines itself, responds particularly indignant and says that the three countries are violating the treaty against proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Pronk says theres a core of truth in that. “Strictly speaking, the Non-Proliferation Treaty is intended to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. In this case, we are only talking about exporting nuclear reactors to drive a submarine. But: its about military application of nuclear technology. And that is covered by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
In a way, the Chinese also have a point when they speak of a Cold War. Pronk: “It has all sorts of parallels to the previous Cold War, although there was a different relationship between East and West at the time. There are certainly interfaces, for example, with exchanges of this kind of defence technology. There is now a very concrete arms race in Asia.”