The Sharp U.S. Pivot to Asia Is Throwing Europe Off Balance

The new U.S. alliance with Australia and Britain against China has put Europe closer to a question it has tried to avoid: Which side are you on?

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BRUSSELS — Until this week, the so-called “pivot to Asia” by the United States had been more of a threat than a reality for Europe. But that changed when the Biden administration announced a new defense alliance against China that has left Europe facing an implicit question:

Which side are you on?

It is a question that European leaders have studiously sought to avoid since former President Barack Obama first articulated that America should “pivot” resources and attention to Asia as part of its rivalry with China. European leaders hoped that the relationship between the two superpowers could remain stable and that Europe could balance its interests between the two.

Then the Trump administration sharply raised the temperature with China with tariffs and other trade barriers. And now the Biden administration on Wednesday announced an alliance between the United States, Britain and Australia that would help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific — and, in doing so, also tore up a $66 billion deal for Australia to buy a French fleet of diesel-powered subs.

“Europeans want to defer the moment of truth, to not make a choice between the two,” said Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations, or IFRI. “The Biden administration, like the Trump one, is provoking the moment of choice.”

France was enraged. Yet if it was a humiliation — as well as the cancellation of a lucrative defense deal — it possibly did have a silver lining for France’s broader goals. President Emmanuel Macron of France has been Europe’s loudest proponent of “strategic autonomy,” the idea that Europe needs to retain a balanced approach to the United States and China.

“We must survive on our own, as others do,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, echoing the French line.

The French embarrassment — the Americans also announced the submarine deal with little if any warning — came after the disastrous fall of Afghanistan. European allies were furious with the Biden administration, blaming the Americans for acting with little or no consultation and feeding Mr. Macron’s argument that the United States is no longer an entirely reliable security partner.

“The submarines and Afghanistan, it reinforces the French narrative that you can’t trust the Americans,” said Ulrich Speck of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

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But whether France will succeed in turning this bilateral defeat into a way to promote strategic autonomy is doubtful, analysts suggest. “Many Europeans will see this as a transparent way for the French to leverage their own interests,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the London-based research institution.

Even so, there seems little doubt that Europe’s balancing act is becoming trickier to maintain.

“Europe needs to think hard about where it sits and what it does,” said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe. A Europe that spends more on defense is to be desired, but it also needs allies — including Britain and the United States, she said. And a Europe that does more to build its own security capacity “is the best way to be listened to more by its partners,” she added.

The new alliance, known as AUKUS, is an effort to integrate Australia and Britain into the broader American effort to create a security deterrent to China. For Australia, which has seen its once-strong relations with Beijing deteriorate, America and Britain provide a much stouter deterrent to China in the Indo-Pacific, analysts agree, than could the deal with France.

“It’s sending a very big signal to Beijing, which is useful for the U.S., but especially useful to Australia,” said Ian Lesser, acting director of the German Marshall Fund and head of its Brussels office. “And the weight of that signal is important because of who the partners are.”

Mr. Lesser also questioned why the American moves in the Pacific have to be interpreted as a zero-sum equation in which Europe’s importance is diminished. “I don’t see any diminution of American interest and commitment to European security in the wake of Afghanistan or the moves in Asia,” he said.

The biggest issue for the European Union may be finding the political will for strategic autonomy, a point made by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her state of the European Union address earlier on the day the new Asian alliance was announced.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivering a State of the Union Address on Wednesday at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.Credit…Pool photo by Yves Herman

France may be pushing autonomy, but whether the rest of the European bloc has an appetite for it — and for creating greater distance from Washington — is uncertain.

“France could end up isolating itself,” said Mr. Speck of the German Marshall Fund, noting that in nearly every region where France has security concerns — including Russia, the Sahel and even the Indo-Pacific — the United States continues to be a critical partner.

There are deeper questions about America’s future reliability as a security partner, especially if the conflict with China turns kinetic, which is part of Mr. Macron’s argument, Mr. Lesser acknowledged. “For all the U.S. commitment to Europe, if things go wrong in the Indo-Pacific, that would change the force structure in Europe pretty fast.”

In Poland, a strong American ally in the European Union and NATO, the reaction to the new alliance was more positive, focusing not on a pivot away from Europe “but on the U.S., with the British and the Australians, getting serious about China and also defending the free world,” said Michal Baranowski, who heads the German Marshall Fund office in Poland.

At the same time, he said, Poles see another case where the supposedly professional, pro-European Biden administration “again doesn’t consult and shoves European allies under the bus,” he said. “This time the French, but for us, it was Nord Stream 2, when we were thrown under the bus for Germany,” he said. That was a reference to Mr. Biden’s decision to allow the completion of a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and Poland, that was a priority for European powerhouse Berlin.

“The U.S. will say again that ‘We’re building strong alliances, with Germany and Australia,'” Mr. Baranowski said. “But who suffers? Other allies.”

As for relations with China, Europeans would prefer not to have Beijing in a rage, said Ms. Balfour of Carnegie Europe. “European allies have been more uncomfortable with more hawkish positions on China” and “keenly aware of the need to talk to China about climate and trade,” she said.

So if Europe can keeping talking to Beijing without being portrayed by China as having joined a security pact against it, that could be helpful, she said. “If there is a silver lining to this, it will be if the European Union is capable of playing this card diplomatically, and avoid painting the world as for or against China, which is the rhetoric Beijing is pushing.”

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