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In itself, the recent AUKUS announcement by the Biden Administration was a positive step forward in advancing our competitive advantage in the Indo-Pacific. Subsequent developments were not. Australia’s response was to cancel a $43 billion contract with France for diesel submarines, prompting outrage and the recall of French ambassadors in the U.S. and Australia. This was the first time in our alliance with France, dating back to 1778 that an ambassador was recalled to Paris. The question is not, “Was the deal worth alienating our oldest ally?” Rather, “Why did the U.S. not seek to avert such a huge strategic misstep?”

As recently as late June of this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed the shared interests between the U.S. and France in countering China’s ascendant authoritarianism. This was preceded by a historic agreement between the U.S., U.K., and French Navies aimed at furthering their interoperability. Now the critical contributions that France offers for our undersea superiority are in jeopardy. Let’s look at three:

Technology.  The AUKUS agreement aims to deliver the first nuclear attack submarine to Australia in 2040. While I do not dispute the superiority of current U.S. submarine technology, there is a revolution occurring in uncrewed undersea technology that should have been considered here. The U.S. and U.K. are committed to rapidly expanding and advancing autonomous capabilities, and France offers cutting-edge capabilities with market-leading performance characteristics. As China seeks to become a leader in military applications of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence, we should have considered ways to include France in this new anti-China alliance.

Territory. According to former National Security Council Chief of Staff Alex Gray, the deep seabed is China’s next target for dominance, where critical minerals and oceanographic knowledge are the objectives of this pursuit. Both directly enable our undersea warfare capabilities, and China’s activity here poses significant military challenges for the U.S. and its allies. France possesses the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), with a large portion in the Indo-Pacific. When considered with the EEZs of our Pacific Island Country (PIC) allies, this composite, allied seabed can provide a vast bathymetric buffer against China’s goal of exploiting the deep seabed economically and militarily.  France’s fury could very well lead to their granting China access to a huge swath of undersea territory that is clearly in Beijing’s interests.

Teamwork. Countering China requires all hands on deck. U.S. states, the private sector, and non-profit organizations all have a role, as do like-minded nation-states.  The AUKUS Agreement is predicated on the power of partnerships in strengthening the ability of each member. To thwart China’s globally malign influence, alliances like this and NATO are increasingly relevant. Yet on the heels of the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, NATO may be the closest it has been to dissolving. France has already withdrawn from the integrated military command structure of the alliance. Now, a complete withdrawal is a real possibility.

It is not yet known if this misstep with France was due to the cold calculus of undersea capability or a more concerning and inept neglect of thinking through its cascading effects. If the debacle of the recent Afghanistan withdrawal is an indicator, it is sadly the latter. In any case, the potential turn by France towards China would be a colossal backfire.

Revolutionary War General, hero, and Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette prided himself on being one of “the earliest adopted sons of America.” Were he to learn of this astonishing breach of trust with the ally that so critically aided in America’s independence, he could not be blamed for revoking that birthright.

Rear Admiral Gallaudet (USN, Ret.) is the former Deputy Administrator at NOAA and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. Prior to NOAA he served for 32 years in the U.S. Navy completing his career as the Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy.

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