Biden Administration Officials Try to Soothe France Over Australia Submarine Deal
China on Thursday moved quickly to counter an effort by the U.S., U.K. and Australia to contain its ambitions in the Pacific, saying it would apply to join a regional economic pact the U.S. had eschewed, as Washington and Beijing maneuvered for economic and military position in the theater that will define their great power competition.
The U.S. has been amassing a network of alliances, including India and Japan. The latest among the three English-speaking allies will be an effort to provide Australia with nuclear submarines to strengthen deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region, White House officials said. Australia scrapped a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with France as a result, prompting Paris to accuse the three of betrayal.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday called the U.S. move a “stab in the back.” The French embassy in Washington canceled a gala planned for Friday.
China isn’t taking the news sitting down: It sought to increase its own economic influence by announcing Thursday that it had applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, known as CPTPP. The U.S. was close to joining the regional trade pact, then known as the TPP, before withdrawing in 2017 over widespread skepticism of multilateral trade agreements.
Successive U.S. administrations have sought to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Asia and what they perceived as the rising threat—and unwillingness to play by international rules—of an emboldened Beijing. The Obama administration saw mixed success with its so-called “pivot to Asia” as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan overshadowed new initiatives.
The Trump administration imposed tariffs on Chinese goods and bolstered what it termed an Indo-Pacific security alliance that sought to embed India among the nations allied against China.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said the big challenge for the U.S. is no longer counterterrorism but competition with China and Russia, one of the rationales behind the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
In a joint news conference Thursday in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defense Minister Peter Dutton described the new pact as a continuation of historic security and economic ties that had seen Australian and U.S. forces fighting alongside one another from World War I to Afghanistan.
The four officials “spoke in detail about China’s destabilizing activities and Beijing’s efforts to coerce and intimidate other countries, contrary to established rules and norms,” Mr. Austin said. A day earlier, a White House official insisted the pact wasn’t aimed at a single country, but was about “advancing our strategic interests, upholding the international rules-based order, and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”
Mr. Dutton cited the “deterrence element” in the planned acquisition of the nuclear submarines, which run more stealthily and at longer range than conventional submarines. Australia’s decision was based on the need to preserve the “regional superiority” of its naval fleet, the Australian defense minister said.
U.S. officials have said the submarines won’t be nuclear-armed and that Australia doesn’t seek nuclear weapons.
China considers the agreement “extremely irresponsible” and stemming from “outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality,” said a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Zhao Lijian, on Thursday.
Beijing describes the Chinese military and political actions that trouble the U.S. and its Pacific allies as defense of its own territorial integrity. It has boosted investments in its military technology with weaponry such as new submarines, and set territorial policies like an air exclusion zone that requires foreign aircraft to identify themselves.
Chinese armed forces flex their muscles with maneuvers at the edges of the nation’s airspace and maritime borders with Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam, while the People’s Liberation Army has constructed roads and buildings near the borders of India and Nepal.
Beijing’s effort at exerting its economic might in the foreign policy sphere has touched Australia’s shores in particular: Last year, China imposed steep tariffs on Australian barley, suspended beef imports from some Australian slaughterhouses, and slapped antidumping tariffs on Australian wine, among other trade penalties, after Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an investigation into the Chinese origins of the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms. Payne said the Australian government has long extended to Beijing an invitation for dialogue, which has been “consistently not taken up.”
“Dialogue is constructive. Dialogue enables the airing of any differences, the ventilating of any concerns,” she said.
China’s leader Xi Jinping has been trying to refashion the relationship with Washington as one between two equal powers. Having tried in vain to get the Biden administration to reverse the anti-China policy of the Trump era, Mr. Xi has stepped up efforts to confront Washington and to woo nations that are traditionally in the U.S.’s orbit.
“The new type of major-power relationship Xi has advocated is one that’s built on equality,” a Beijing adviser says.
Mr. Xi is betting that many countries will be unwilling to sign up for a U.S.-led united front against Beijing because of the lure of the vast Chinese markets. The Chinese government has consistently punished countries supporting causes that aren’t in line with the ruling Communist Party’s objectives with economic sanctions. In Beijing’s views, such reluctance offers opportunities for China to swoop in and form alliances.
The agreement among the U.S., U.K. and Australia is aimed in part at blunting China’s economic influence in the region.
“We’ve raised publicly and privately our serious concerns about Beijing’s use of economic coercion against Australia,” Mr. Blinken said. “We’ve made it clear that actions like these targeting our allies will hinder movements in our own relationship with the Chinese government.”
Beijing’s application to join the regional trade pact isn’t a surprise; Mr. Xi and other senior leaders had talked about China’s interest in joining the CPTPP in the past year. However, the timing of the application indicates that the Chinese leadership aimed for an eye-for-eye response to the U.S. alliance move.