Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on transatlantic ties

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US President Joe Biden participates is a virtual press conference on national security with British PM Boris Johnson (R) and Australian PM Scott Morrison on Sept. 15, 2021. (AFP)
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​ Somewhat neglected after the Cold War, attack submarines are now making a serious comeback around the world. (US Navy photo via AFP) ​
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In this February 18, 2017, file photo, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group patrols the South China Sea after Beijing told Washington not to challenge its sovereignty in the waterway. (US Navy via AFP)
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US President Joe Biden has been warned not to push France into other alliances that Washington may regret. (AFP photo)
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Updated 20 September 2021

Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on transatlantic ties

  • France feels excluded from AUKUS and robbed of chance to land a lucrative submarine deal
  • Macron recalls ambassadors from the US and Australia for consultation in show of anger

LONDON: The reaction of France to the new trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US brings to mind a powerful cartoon published by an American newspaper during the Trump years, when the US president was ruling by executive order to evade Congress.

The cartoon, which appeared in the Buffalo News, depicted the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France to the US, stabbed in the back not with a dagger but with the president’s pen. Just like Lady Liberty in this cutting depiction, the French must feel as though a dagger is buried between their shoulder blades.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Friday likened the new Indo-Pacific security alliance, known as AUKUS, to a “stab in the back” and the sort of betrayal that “is not something allies do to each other.”

Because of “the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on Sept. 15 by Australia and the United States,” Le Drian announced that Paris would immediately recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultation.

French grievances over the deal relate both to its strategic and financial implications. Paris was not only excluded from the Indo-Pacific strategy but has also lost out on a hugely lucrative contract with Australia to build nuclear submarines. Canberra is tapping American tech instead.

The new alliance, announced during a virtual meeting of US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has ignited a firestorm of criticism from France.

While many observers in Washington applauded the pact as a clear challenge to China, others warned that the agreement marks the beginning of a new arms race in the region, or perhaps even a strategic blunder hot on the heels of America’s Afghanistan withdrawal debacle.




US President Joe Biden participates is a virtual press conference on national security with British PM Boris Johnson (R) and Australian PM Scott Morrison on Sept. 15, 2021. (AFP)

Since taking office, Biden has sought to reset America’s frigid relations with its oldest European allies, yet the AUKUS move appears to have had the opposite effect, alienating France and the wider EU.

It has also exposed a potential rift between the US and its European allies on how to handle the growing influence of China. Differing positions on whether to confront or cooperate with Beijing might, as the New York Times recently put it, “redraw the global strategic map.”

The timing of the AUKUS deal could not have been more critical, coming as it did on “the eve of the publication of the EU strategy in the Indo-Pacific, and as Paris has risen as the main EU strategic actor in the region,” wrote Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council.




France's ambassador to the US, Philippe Etienne, has been recalled to Paris for consultations amid a US-France diplomatic row over the sale of submarines to Australia. (AFP file photo)

He predicts the new dynamic will “create a blow to transatlantic strategy in the region and create a lasting hurdle in US-French relations.”

Next week, the White House is due to host the first in-person meeting of leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India. “The Quad,” as it is known, is another important pillar of Biden’s China policy.

Beijing views the Quad, and the new AUKUS, as a “clique based on a Cold War ideology and detrimental to the international order.” China’s regional rival India, meanwhile, predictably welcomed the new alliance.

Although Biden, Johnson and Scott did not mention China in their AUKUS announcement, the pact was described in the US as part of the president’s policy to “refocus” American national security and to reorient its military posture toward the Chinese threat.




China's increasingly expanding navy and aggressive actions beyond its borders has spurred the US, Japan, Australia and India to form a strategic alliance. (Shutterstock image)

The administration has sought to justify its abrupt departure from Afghanistan on the grounds that it needs to pool its resources to address the threat emanating from China. Critics might have given the Biden team the benefit of the doubt had the new strategic architecture in the Indo-Pacific not come at the expense of US-French relations.

France has good reason to be upset. The new deal with Australia, described as “historic” by the US media and “another step by Western allies to counter China’s strength,” torpedoed the largest military contract Australia has ever awarded — a deal for nuclear submarines worth 90 billion Australian dollars ($65.5 billion), signed in 2017 with the French defense contractor Naval Group.

The US media played down the French reaction to AUKUS and chose not to ruminate over what sort of message the deal might send to America’s allies elsewhere. Instead it focused on the historic nature of the sharing of US nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia.




French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 15, 2021. (AFP)

Defense News hailed the deal as the first time the US has shared this type of technology with any ally since the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958.

Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, likewise drew a parallel between the new pact and the Eisenhower administration’s policy of sharing nuclear technology with the UK, a policy that caused French President Charles de Gaulle to decry “Anglo-Saxon nuclear cooperation and propelled France to develop its own nuclear capabilities.”

Indeed, much like de Gaulle, French President Emmanuel Macron might well interpret the AUKUS deal as a deliberate Anglo-Saxon snub that undermines its strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific.

France is not a minor player in the region. It is the only European country with a big presence in the Indo-Pacific, including about 7,000 soldiers on active deployment.

Cutting France out of the new strategic architecture represents a blow both to Paris and to Macron, who had prided himself on fostering a good relationship with Biden. The perceived snub could backfire badly for the Anglo-Saxon trio by pushing the French president to seek alliances elsewhere.




Daphné class French submarine under construction in Lorient, France. (Shutterstock photo)

Many observers had expected more from the Biden administration after its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the damage this caused to America’s global standing and perceptions of its commitment to its allies. Instead, AUKUS looks like more of the same.

Biden’s secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, is a francophone who grew up in Paris and has long enjoyed good relations with the French. This had raised hopes of a new flourishing of ties between the two governments. Instead, relations have hit rock bottom.




US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron meeting like long-lost friends during then G-7 summit in Cornwall, UK on June 13. (GETTY IMAGES/AFP/File Photo)

The perceived betrayal seems all the more cruel when one takes into consideration how much America has gained from its French connection during the war on terror. In Africa especially, it is French forces who have led operations against Daesh affiliates. Only this week, Macron announced the assassination of Adnan Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, the leader of Daesh in the Sahara, who had been accused of killing four Americans.

In Washington, foreign policy watchers currently interpret the rift with Paris as a “tactical error and not a strategic mistake.” But the French beg to differ.

When Blinken recently posted a tweet calling France a “vital partner” in the Pacific, Gerard Araud, the outspoken French former ambassador to Washington, responded sarcastically: “We are deeply moved.”

As Washington sets about redrawing the strategic map in the Indo-Pacific, it would perhaps be wise not to take its oldest friendships for granted. Indeed, if America cannot be counted on to stand by its allies, Washington could find itself short of friends when push comes to shove.

 


Taiwan says odds of war with China in next year ‘very low’

Updated 3 sec ago

Taiwan says odds of war with China in next year ‘very low’

  • Taiwan has repeatedly said that it will defend itself if attacked, but wants to maintain the status quo with China
TAIPEI: The odds of war with China in the next year are “very low,” a top Taiwanese security official told lawmakers on Wednesday, amid heightened tensions between Taipei and Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the island.
Taiwan has repeatedly said that it will defend itself if attacked, but wants to maintain the status quo with China even as it complains of repeated sorties by the Chinese air force in its air defense identification zone, or ADIZ.
“I think generally, within one year, the probability of war is very low,” National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong told a parliamentary defense committee meeting.
“But there are many things you still have to pay attention to, called contingent events.”
Earlier this month, President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan would not be forced to bow to China, but reiterated a desire for peace and dialogue with Beijing.
Barring any “contingent events,” Chen said, “in the next one year, two years, or three years, during President Tsai’s term, I think there won’t be a problem.”
Chen cited the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of an unexpected event that has fundamentally changed society.
“Nobody expected that,” he said.
Earlier this month China mounted four consecutive days of mass air force incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ, which covers a broader area than Taiwan’s territorial air space. Taiwan monitors and patrols ADIZ in order to give it more time to respond to any threats.
While China’s aircraft did not enter into Taiwan’s airspace, flying primarily in the southwestern corner of its ADIZ, Taiwan views the increased frequency of incursions as part of Beijing’s intensifying military harassment.
China defended its military activities as “just” moves to protect peace and stability, blaming the tensions on Taiwan’s “collusion” with foreign forces — a veiled reference to the United States.
Taiwan says it is an independent country called the Republic of China, its formal name.
Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said last week that Taiwan will not start a war with China but will “meet the enemy full on.”
Military tensions with China are at their higher point in more than 40 years, Chiu said earlier this month, adding China will be capable of mounting a “full scale” invasion by 2025.

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

Updated 8 min 47 sec ago

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

  • Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters

VENICE, Italy: After Venice suffered the second-worst flood in its history in November 2019, it was inundated with four more exceptional tides within six weeks, shocking Venetians and triggering fears about the worsening impact of climate change.
The repeated invasion of brackish lagoon water into St. Mark’s Basilica this summer is a quiet reminder that the threat hasn’t receded.
“I can only say that in August, a month when this never used to happen, we had tides over a meter five times. I am talking about the month of August, when we are quiet,” St. Mark’s chief caretaker, Carlo Alberto Tesserin, told The Associated Press.
Venice’s unique topography, built on log piles among canals, has made it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea levels are increasing the frequency of high tides that inundate the 1,600-year-old Italian lagoon city, which is also gradually sinking.
It is the fate of coastal cities like Venice that will be on the minds of climate scientists and global leaders meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, at a UN climate conference that begins Oct. 31.
Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters (3 feet, 11 inches), according to a new study published by the European Geosciences Union. That is 50 percent higher than the worse-case global sea-rise average of 80 centimeters (2 feet, 7 1/2 inches) forecast by the UN science panel.
The city’s interplay of canals and architecture, of natural habitat and human ingenuity, also has earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding universal value, a designation put at risk of late because of the impact of over-tourism and cruise ship traffic. It escaped the endangered list after Italy banned cruise ships from passing through St. Mark’s Basin, but alarm bells are still ringing.
Sitting at Venice’s lowest spot, St. Mark’s Basilica offers a unique position to monitor the impact of rising seas on the city. The piazza outside floods at 80 centimeters (around 30 inches), and water passes the narthex into the church at 88 centimeters (34.5 inches), which has been reinforced up from a previous 65 centimeters (25.5 inches).
“Conditions are continuing to worsen since the flooding of November 2019. We therefore have the certainty that in these months, flooding is no longer an occasional phenomenon. It is an everyday occurrence,” said Tesserin, whose honorific, First Procurator of St. Mark’s, dates back to the ninth century.
In the last two decades, there have been nearly as many inundations in Venice over 1.1 meters — the official level for “acqua alta,” or “high water,” provoked by tides, winds and lunar cycles — as during the previous 100 years: 163 vs. 166, according to city data.
Exceptional floods over 140 centimeters (4 feet, 7 inches) also are accelerating. That mark has been hit 25 times since Venice starting keeping such records in 1872. Two-thirds of those have been registered in the last 20 years, with five, or one-fifth of the total, from Nov. 12-Dec. 23, 2019.
“What is happening now is on the continuum for Venetians, who have always lived with periodic flooding,” said Jane Da Mosto, executive director of We Are Here Venice. “We are living with flooding that has become increasingly frequent, so my concern is that people haven’t really realized we are in a climate crisis. We are already living it now. It is not a question of plans to deal with it in the future. We need to have solutions ready for today.”
Venice’s defense has been entrusted to the Moses system of moveable underwater barriers, a project costing around 6 billion euros (nearly $7 billion) and which, after decades of cost overruns, delays and a bribery scandal, is still officially in the testing phase.
Following the devastation of the 2019 floods, the Rome government put the project under ministry control to speed its completion, and last year start activating the barriers when floods of 1.3 meters (4 feet, 3 inches) are imminent.
The barriers have been raised 20 times since October 2020, sparing the city a season of serious flooding but not from the lower-level tides that are becoming more frequent.
The extraordinary commissioner, Elisabetta Spitz, stands by the soundness of the undersea barriers, despite concerns by scientists and experts that their usefulness may be outstripped within decades because of climate change. The project has been delayed yet again, until 2023, with another 500 million euros ($580 million) in spending, for “improvements” that Spitz said will ensure its long-term efficiency.
“We can say that the effective life of the Moses is 100 years, taking into account the necessary maintenance and interventions that will be implemented,’’ Spitz said.
Paolo Vielmo, an engineer who has written expert reports on the project, points out that the sea level rise was projected at 22 centimeters (8 1/2 inches) when the Moses was first proposed more than 30 years ago, far below the UN scientists’ current worse-case scenario of 80 centimeters.
“That puts the Moses out of contention,” he said.
According to current plans, the Moses barriers won’t be raised for floods of 1.1 meters (3 feet, 7 inches) until the project receives final approval. That leaves St. Mark’s exposed.
Tesserin is overseeing work to protect the Basilica by installing a glass wall around its base, which eventually will protect marshy lagoon water from seeping inside, where it deposits salt that eats away at marble columns, wall cladding and stone mosaics. The project, which continues to be interrupted by high tides, was supposed to be finished by Christmas. Now Tesserin says they will be lucky to have it finished by Easter.
Regular high tides elicit a blase response from Venetians, who are accustomed to lugging around rubber boots at every flood warning, and delight from tourists, fascinated by the sight of St. Mark’s golden mosaics and domes reflected in rising waters. But businesses along St. Mark’s Square increasingly see themselves at ground zero of the climate crisis.
“We need to help this city. It was a light for the world, but now it needs the whole world to understand it,’’ said Annapaola Lavena, speaking from behind metal barriers that kept waters reaching 1.05 meters (3 feet, 5 inches) from invading her marble-floored cafe.
“The acqua alta is getting worse, and it completely blocks business. Venice lives thanks to its artisans and tourism. If there is no more tourism, Venice dies,” she explained. “We have a great responsibility in trying to save it, but we are suffering a lot.”

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Taliban agree to new polio vaccination drive across Afghanistan — WHO

Updated 20 October 2021

Taliban agree to new polio vaccination drive across Afghanistan — WHO

  • In the past Taliban barred UN-organized teams from campaigns out of suspicion they could be spies 
  • Some 3.3 million children over the past three years have not been vaccinated

ISTANBUL: UN agencies are gearing up to vaccinate all of Afghanistan’s children under 5 against polio for the first time since 2018, after the Taliban agreed to the campaign, the World Health Organization says.
For the past three years, the Taliban barred UN-organized vaccination teams from doing door-to-door campaigns in parts of Afghanistan under their control, apparently out of suspicion they could be spies for the government or the West. Because of the ban and ongoing fighting, some 3.3 million children over the past three years have not been vaccinated.
The Taliban’s reported agreement now, after becoming the rulers of Afghanistan, appeared aimed at showing they are willing to cooperate with international agencies. The longtime militant insurgent force has been trying to win the world’s recognition of its new government and re-open the door for international aid to rescue the crumbling economy.
Taliban officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But WHO and the UN children’s agency UNICEF said in a statement they welcomed the decision by the Taliban leadership supporting the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccinations across the country.
Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic. The disease can cause partial paralysis in children. Since 2010, the country has been carrying out regular inoculation campaigns in which workers go door to door, giving the vaccine to children. Most of the workers are women, since they can get better access to mothers and children.
But large sections of the country have been out of their reach in recent years. In parts of the south, particularly, the ban by the Taliban was in effect. In other areas, door-to-door campaigns were impossible because of fighting between the government and the insurgents, or because of fears of kidnappings or roadside bombs. In some places, hard-line clerics spoke out against vaccinations, calling them un-Islamic or a Western plot.
WHO said a new nationwide vaccination campaign will begin on November 8, followed by another synchronized with Pakistan’s polio vaccination campaign in December.
The estimated target population is Afghanistan’s 10 million children under five, including the more than 3.3 million who could not be reached since 2018, Dr. Hamid Jafari, WHO’s director of polio eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean region, told The Associated Press.
“Restarting polio vaccination in all areas of Afghanistan now will prevent a major resurgence of polio outbreaks within the country and ensure there is no international spread,” Jafari said.
“This is an extremely important step in the right direction,” said Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan. He said it was a good sign that multiple campaigns are planned. “Sustained access to all children is essential to end polio for good.”
Jafari said the Taliban government had agreed on three key aspects — security for health workers and vaccinators, mobilization of health authorities and the new leadership for the campaign, and communications through religious, tribal and community leaders and media to build trust in the campaign.
He urged families not to be suspicious of the vaccinators going house to house, saying the only intention is to protect children. “They should trust the program. They should trust the vaccine.”
On March 30, three women were gunned down in two separate attacks as they carried out door-to-door vaccinations in the eastern city of Jalalabad. It was the first time vaccination workers have been killed in a decade of door-to-door inoculations against the disease in Afghanistan.
Such attacks have been more common in Pakistan, where at least 70 vaccinators and security personnel connected to vaccination campaigns have been killed since 2011.


Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul

Updated 20 October 2021

Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul

  • Explosion happened during rush hour in the Deh Mazang district in the west of the capital

KABUL: A grenade was thrown at a Taliban vehicle in the Afghan capital on Wednesday morning, wounding two fighters and four nearby school children, government officials said.
“This morning a grenade was thrown at a mujahideen vehicle in Deh Mazang, wounding two mujahideen,” Taliban interior ministry spokesman Qari Sayed Khosti said.
Another official said: “Our initial information shows four school students wounded.”
The explosion happened just before 8 a.m. (0330 GMT) during rush hour in the Deh Mazang district in the west of the capital, a witness said.
“I was on my way to work, it was 7.55am and I heard this very big explosion on the road. I managed to escape,” said Amin Amani.
“I saw a lot of smoke in the mirror of the car and I saw people running,” the 35-year-old translator said.
Images shared on social media showed plumes of smoke and dust rising into the air on the streets of the capital.


Floods, landslides kill 116 in India and Nepal

Updated 3 min 58 sec ago

Floods, landslides kill 116 in India and Nepal

  • In Uttarakhand in northern India, officials said 46 people had died in recent days with 11 missing
  • Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state

DEHRADUN: The death toll from days of flooding and landslides in India and Nepal crossed 100 on Wednesday, including several families swept away or crushed in their homes by avalanches of mud and rocks.
Experts say that they were victims of ever-more unpredictable and extreme weather across South Asia in recent years caused by climate change and exacerbated by deforestation, damming and excessive development.
In Uttarakhand in northern India, officials said 46 people had died in recent days with 11 missing.
At least 30 were killed in seven separate incidents in Uttarakhand’s Nainital region early Tuesday, after cloudbursts — an ultra-intense deluge of rain — triggered landslides and destroyed several structures.
Five of the dead were from a single family whose house was buried by a massive landslide, local official Pradeep Jain told AFP.
Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state.
Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake, a tourist hotspot, and the Ganges bursting its banks in Rishikesh.
The floods almost swept away an elephant near the Corbett Tiger Reserve — home to 164 of the big cats and 600 elephants — but in a video that went viral, the animal managed to battle the strong currents and swim to safety.
Uttarakhand reported 178.4 mm rain in the first 18 days of October — almost 500 percent more than the average, the Hindustan Times reported citing Indian Meteorological Department data.
And the state’s Mukteshwar area reported 340.8 mm rainfall in the 24 hours until Tuesday morning, the most since the weather station was set up there in 1897, the newspaper said.
The Indian Meteorological Department forecast a “significant reduction” in rainfall in the state from Wednesday.
In Nepal, 31 were reported dead after days of heavy rains across the country.
Disaster management official Humkala Pandey said that 43 others were still missing.
“It’s still raining in many places... The death toll could go up further,” she added.
In the eastern district of Dhankuta, a landslide buried a house overnight, killing six people including three children.
Swelling rivers flooded homes in several districts, damaging roads and bridges and reportedly destroying crops.
Landslides are a regular danger in the Himalayan region, but experts say they are becoming more common as rains become increasingly erratic and glaciers melt.
Experts also blame deforestation and the construction of hydroelectric dams.
In February, a ferocious flash flood hurtled down a remote valley in Uttarakhand, killing around 200 people. At least 5,700 people perished there in 2013.
The state has reported over 7,750 extreme rainfall events and cloudbursts since 2015 — a majority of them in the last three years.
In Kerala state in southern India, the death toll reached 39 on Wednesday.
The coastal state has been battered by heavy rain since Friday and thousands have been moved to safer locations. More than 200 homes were destroyed and almost 1,400 damaged.
Kerala has also seen an increase in natural disasters, including in 2018 when nearly 500 people perished in the worst flooding in a century.
Environmentalists blame an increase in extreme weather in the warming Arabian Sea as well as excessive development in the Western Ghats mountain range.
After a brief respite, forecasters are warning of more heavy rain in the coming days with alerts issued in several places in Kerala.
Those killed over the weekend included six members of the same family after a landslide buried their house.
Shutters on at least three dams across the state were opened Tuesday including Idukki, one of Asia’s biggest, though State Electricity Board chairman B. Ashok said “there was no need to panic.”