The Secret Talks Behind the U.S. Deal That France Called a ‘Betrayal’

By that time, the Australians knew the program was dead.

The French ambassador to the United States, Philippe Étienne, said in several interviews that he first heard of the deal in leaked news reports appearing in the Australian media and in Politico. Other French officials said they had been suspicious that something was up a week ago, but did not get an immediate response from Mr. Blinken or Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. The first American official to discuss the details with Ambassador Étienne was Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, a few hours before the public announcement on Wednesday.

American officials insist it was not their place to talk to the French about their business deal with Australia — that was for Australian officials to discuss.

The Chinese government also did not get a heads-up, no surprise since the official American position is that the submarine deal is not aimed at any particular nation. But China’s first response to the new alliance, awkwardly named AUKUS (for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States), was that it was “extremely irresponsible” and would start an arms race. In fact, the Pentagon’s most recent China report says the Chinese navy has built a dozen nuclear subs, some of which can carry nuclear weapons. Australia has vowed never to deploy nuclear weapons.

Even before Mr. Macron recalled the ambassadors, Mr. Biden’s aides seemed taken aback by the ferocity of the French response, especially Mr. Le Drian’s characterization that it was a “knife in the back.” They have suggested the French were being overly dramatic and believe the two countries will gradually return to normal relations. History suggests they may be right: A huge breach prompted by the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956 was eventually papered over, as was the “Nixon Shock” with the Japanese in 1971, when the United States gave no notice about its decision to come off the gold standard.

In this case, American officials said the decision to toss over the existing French-Australian contract, and replace it with one that would bind Australia technologically and strategically to the nuclear submarine program, generated virtually no internal debate, participants said. The reason was straightforward: In the Biden White House, the imperative to challenge China’s growing footprint, and its efforts to push the U.S. Navy east, to the next island chain in the Pacific, reigns supreme.

“It says a lot about how Washington discerns its interests in the Pacific,’’ said Mr. Fontaine, “that there was no hand-wringing about angering the French.”

For years, American officials have known that the turn toward Asia could strain relations with European allies. While former President Barack Obama initially embraced the phrase “the pivot” to describe the American move to the region of the world where its economic and strategic interests are greatest — as a basketball player, he latched on to the sports metaphor — his White House eventually banned the public use of the phrase because of European objections.

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