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Deal Between U.S., Britain And Australia Counters China But Angers France


The U.S. announced a deal with the U.K. and Australia yesterday to build nuclear-powered submarines together. But the deal is about a lot more than subs. The three-country agreement looks like another move by the U.S. to build coalitions that counter China's influence in the Pacific and globally. That is the focus of U.S. foreign policy, but it has divided some allies. Some are more willing than others to take sides. Britain has been more eager to join in - France, much less so. And we're going to hear from both of those countries now.

We're joined by NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Hey to both of you.


CHANG: All right, Frank, let's start with you. What is driving the U.K. to join in on this? Like, what does it get out of this? - because China and Australia are a long way from British shores.

LANGFITT: They are. But you have to think of it from a British perspective. It's a post-Brexit Britain outside the European Union. They're looking for a new role in the world and friends. Boris Johnson wants a greater presence in the Indo-Pacific because of all the economic growth there. The sub deal is an easy way to partner with other democracies to help ensure freedom of navigation out there and, frankly, remain politically relevant. It also could mean U.K. jobs. I was talking to a guy named Ian Bond. He's a foreign policy analyst with the Centre for European Reform. This is how he put it.

IAN BOND: Potentially, this is a very big, very lucrative contract of great interest to the U.K. as a country, which has a long history of building nuclear submarines.

LANGFITT: And, Ailsa, I think it's really important to remember this sub deal also keeps the U.K. close to a key ally, the United States, by helping on a key goal, and that's countering China.

CHANG: But what exactly does Britain have to offer in terms of real military support to check China?

LANGFITT: Militarily, it's very limited, and I think this is important to remember. The U.K. sent a new aircraft carrier all the way out to the South China Sea over the summer. It had to rely in part on U.S. fighter jets to fill the gaps on board. And also, the U.K. only has about 76,000 active-duty troops. I was talking to a guy named Robert Singh. He teaches politics at Birkbeck, University of London. And this is how he puts it.

ROBERT SINGH: We can't really even field a significant military presence in terms of projecting power abroad now. Wembley Stadium here takes about 90,000 people. So the Rolling Stones can fill Wembley Stadium, but the British Army can't.

CHANG: (Laughter) Wow, what an image. Well, Eleanor, France was not in this agreement, and Australia actually has canceled a submarine deal with France now. What's been the reaction where you are?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, it was a stinging blow. It was a huge shock, and France feels totally betrayed. You know, Australia and France had a defense deal. They signed it in 2016. It was for 50 years - $43-billion contract. It would have meant a transfer of French technology to build 12 conventional submarines. And, you know, while Australia does have the right to take into account its own strategic needs, this was done in sort of a secrecy. The U.S. is claiming that they told France, but France says absolutely not. They were blindsided by it.

The French foreign minister today said on the radio that he felt stabbed in the back by the Australians. And he said allies don't treat each other that way. You know, France is one of the key allies of Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. in that region. It's been conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. It has a presence, and France's deepening defense relationship with Australia was a centerpiece of this. So the cancelation of this deal is a huge blow, both to France's relationship with Australia and the U.S. right now.

CHANG: Well, what is the French view overall on how the U.S. is focusing on China right now?

BEARDSLEY: Well, France and, I would say, most of the EU, they want to work with the U.S. in managing China. But China remains an important trade partner for Europe. So the Europeans, they don't want to get sucked into a U.S.-China battle. I spoke with Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, and here's what he said.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: What Europeans are wary about is a form of logic of confrontation taking over in the relationships. So they want to address the concerns they have over China's behavior with allies but are sometimes wary of the rhetoric that they hear coming out of Washington.

CHANG: All right. So it sounds like some of this is about trust in the U.S. generally. And, Frank, Britain, I know, was shaken by America's sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan, but now it's still willing to go along on China. Why is that?

LANGFITT: Well, I think, you know, the anger was very heartfelt that you heard from British lawmakers about a month or so ago. But ultimately, Johnson's very pragmatic. This is Boris Johnson, the prime minister. He wants a good relationship with the U.S., and he knows that the great contest of this era is with China out in East Asia. Here's how Rana Mitter - he runs the China Centre here at the University of Oxford. Here's how he explains it.

RANA MITTER: Afghanistan is not at the center of the part of the world that contains a huge amount of the world's economic power. That is the Indo-Pacific region. And in that context, I think you'd actually be hard put to find any kind of wavering or bump in terms of the closer relationship that the U.S., Britain and other allies have had over that area.

CHANG: Well, Eleanor, how would you characterize the way Paris is looking at the U.S.-France relationship right now?

BEARDSLEY: Well, they're just stunned, and it's taken a big dive. You know, it was just a few months ago that Secretary of State Antony Blinken who is fluent in French, grew up in Paris, knows many of the people, the foreign minister, he was here talking about restoring the transatlantic relation and friendship. And, you know, all that seems to have just gone out the window. And the foreign minister said today he was also very preoccupied by the Biden administration's behavior. He said that this unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision looks a lot like what Trump used to do.

CHANG: Wow. All right. That was NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thank you to both of you.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.