It was a good deal – too good to be true. The supply of 12 conventionally powered submarines to Australia, a contract worth nearly € 55 billion, half of which seemed set to go to France’s Naval Group. Australia cancelled the contract, purely and simply, in favour of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and the United Kingdom. “Betrayal”, “stab in the back”, “attempt to eliminate the French defence industry”, “strategic break”, “slap in the face for France”, “breach of trust”, recall of ambassador, and so on. Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, was the most melodramatic, describing the USA and Australia as “former partners”.1
The emotion was all the greater because Canberra’s cancellation of the contract and, above all, the birth of AUKUS – the strategic alliance between Australia, the UK and the US – came only a few weeks after another important event, the “impromptu” withdrawal from Afghanistan. That decision had already shaken the strategic calm that Europe thought it had regained with the election of US president Joe Biden.
These two events are closely linked. They are both part of the maturation at the Pentagon and the State Department of the “Asian pivot” policy, which President Obama had first mentioned publicly ten years earlier – in Australia, to be precise. Of course, this political shift is above all an “officialization” of the centrality of the China issue in American foreign and security policy. However, that policy is not a solely American question. It concerns all countries attached to freedom in general and to freedom of movement in this region of the world. Moreover, the pivot encompasses multiple subjects, including the problem of secularization in Muslim lands – in particular, those difficulties in establishing rule of law and democracy which arise from the very structure of Islam, all the more so in countries bordering anti-democratic powers or governed by systems based on Islam and nationalism. Afghanistan, which borders China, Pakistan and Iran, is a textbook case in this respect.