A “cheated” France has joined China in taking aim at Australia as the drama over the nuclear submarine deal with the US and UK refuses to go away.
A “cheated” France is taking aim at Australia, along with China, as the drama over the nuclear submarine deal with the US and UK refuses to go away.
France slammed Australia overnight after its Europe and Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian flew into Jakarta for a two-day visit with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and senior officials.
Mr Le Drian, who signed France’s agreement with Australia in 2019, has spent the last few weeks lashing the new deal, and during his visit to Indonesia he pointedly omitted Australia in detailing the French Indo-Pacific strategy. He also said France felt “cheated”.
“The challenge is to take stock together of the new international order where the cards are being reshuffled everywhere on all subjects”, he said during a speech on the French Strategy on the Indo-Pacific at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr Le Drian criticised the US and UK for “breaking away from the tradition”, but of particular focus was Australia’s former submarine deal with France.
“We thought we had a good industrial partnership,” he said.
“It came to an end in a second, out of the blue. This is not correct, but so be it.
“Within NATO, the United States and the United Kingdom are our allies. Of course, Australia is not a part of it.
“Nonetheless, they are historically our allies and they acted behind our back on military, on strategic issues, they did not tell us about it and we found out about all of that by listening to a press conference.”
Mr Le Drian described it as a “trust crisis”.
“[It was] some sort of betrayal. The second element is a crisis of trust between historical partners, which is even more of a concern.”
Mr Le Drian said after the AUKUS announcement in September, the French called the US ambassador who gave them “very clear explanations”.
At the time, France called the decision by Australia a “stab in the back”.
He said France’s relationship with America was on good terms because the US not only provided the necessary “explanations” but “made some commitments to us on a number of issues including European defence”.
Speaking with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi, Mr Le Drian cemented France’s focus on the Indo-Pacific without Australia, saying: “The heart of this commitment is our vision of an Indo-Pacific which is free and open, based on the rule of law, and a respect for the sovereignty of every state.”
He also claimed the Indo-Pacific region will be a focus of the work of the European Union under the leadership of France once it assumes the rotating presidency of the EU.
‘The Australians may have lost’
Earlier this week, Mr Le Drian told French television: “The submarines, for me, are not over. The subject is not closed. The Australians may have lost a lot more than they realise.
“It’s a project for now. The three [US, UK and AU] have come to an agreement. But on what? About the fact that in 18 months there will be a project. For the moment, there is nothing.
“The subject which was posed by the Australian Prime Minister was to say: ‘I am doing this because I am afraid of China.’”
Last week, he told French newspaper Le Monde that while France’s relationship with the US is improving: “Things are not moving with Australia, its Prime Minister is digging its heels with denials and contradictions.”
In a further snub, Australia was notably absent in a social media video posted by the French government prior to Mr Le Drian’s trip.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s South-East Asia correspondent Chris Barrett reported Australia “notably missed the cut”.
According to the publication, the video claims: “We share this vision with our partners in the region. Old partners like India and Japan, and more recent partners like Indonesia and Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, South Korea, New Zealand and ASEAN, which groups 10 countries in South-East Asia.”
China continued to take aim at Australia just days after Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a rare appearance hours after Australia signed a “major step” of the historic submarine deal with the US and the UK.
On Monday, Defence Minister Peter Dutton signed a formal agreement in the first stage of the controversial AUKUS deal towards acquiring nuclear submarines.
Mr Dutton appeared in a ceremony alongside US Chargé d’Affaires Michael Goldman and UK High Commissioner Victoria Treadell for the pact, which means the US and UK can now share secret information on the vessels with Australia.
In an editorial in the South China Morning Post, columnist Zhou Bo accused Australia of losing the trust of France.
“To stare into the abyss helps one to step back. Should a conflict occur, with the possible exception of Japan and Australia, no American ally would wish to take the US’ side,” Bo wrote.
“One can hardly imagine that Thailand, an American ally and a friend of China, would follow the US into a war with China under any circumstances.
“If the US has succeeded in sweet-talking Australia into antagonising China, as was proved with the AUKUS submarine deal, it has lost the trust of France, another important ally.
“The immediate outcome is zero, the long-term benefit is inconsequential.”
The deal, first announced in September, caused an international headache for Scott Morrison, when the Prime Minister was sensationally rebuked by Emmanuel Macron after the French President called him a liar.
Mr Morrison told reporters in Glasgow he would not “cop slurs” about Australia’s integrity and that he made no apology for his decision to abandon a $90 billion submarine contract with France.
Mr Macron accused Mr Morrison of lying by not revealing that Australia had been in talks with the UK and US over the acquisition of nuclear submarines before he pulled out of the French deal.
Mr Macron made the extraordinary comment to Australian reporters at the G20 summit in Rome, after weeks of escalating diplomatic tensions between France and Australia.
“I have a lot of respect and a lot of friendship for [Australian] people,” he said.
“I just say when we have respect, you have to be true and you have to behave in line and consistently with this value.”
When asked if he thought Mr Morrison had lied to him, he said: “I don’t think. I know.”
In response, Mr Morrison said he did not wish to “personalise the spat” but would not accept “statements questioning Australia’s integrity”.
“I don’t wish to personalise this,” Mr Morrison said.
“There’s no element of that from my perspective. I must say that I think the statements that were made questioning Australia’s integrity and the slurs that have been placed on Australia, not me, I’ve got broad shoulders. I can deal with that.
“But those slurs, I’m not going to cop sledging at Australia. I’m not going to cop that on behalf of Australians.
“I can deal with whatever people throw at me. But Australia has a proud record when it comes to our defence capability. That’s why we will be building these. We’ll be building others. And Australia’s service record, I think needs no elaboration. And so that’s where we are.”
He said the conventional diesel submarines that would have been built under the deal with France would not have met Australia’s strategic needs.
“I have to put Australia’s interests before any interests that involved potentially offending others,” he said.
“The [French] submarine contract was a significant investment decision taken five years ago. At that point, given the strategic circumstance, time and technology available to Australia the attack class submarine was the right decision.
“But there have been significant changes that have occurred in our strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific, which completely changed the game.”
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