The announcement of the new defence partnership between the US, the UK, and Australia – AUKUS – on Wednesday, had been slammed by France as a “stab in the back”, as it led to the scrapping of a multi-billion-dollar order to build conventionally-powered submarines for Canberra, which was now set to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered subs instead.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to mend fences with France on Sunday amid the furious diplomatic backlash his country’s new security alliance with the US and Australia – AUKUS – had generated.
“We are very, very proud of our relationship with France and it is of huge importance to this country. It is a very friendly relationship – and entente cordial – that goes back a century or more and it absolutely vital for us,” Johnson told reporters as he flew to New York.
The Prime Minister, accompanied by UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are set to attend the United Nations General Assembly, with Johnson expected to visit to the White House to confer with US President Joe Biden.
Commenting on the defence pact between the three nations, which will enable Australia to acquire a nuclear-powered fleet, while leaving France bemoaning the loss of a 2016 contract worth around $65 billion (€50 billion) to build 12 diesel-electric subs for Canberra, Johnson said:“Our love of France is ineradicable and what I would say is this AUKUS is not in any way meant to be zero sum. It is not meant to be exclusionary, it is not something I don’t think anyone needs to worry about and particularly not our French friends.” The UK PM added:
The Prime Minister’s remarks followed a decision by France to reportedly cancel a planned London meeting between Florence Parly, the country’s armed forces minister, with UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
‘Stab in the Back’
The AUKUS deal, which will presuppose the sharing of military technologies, including artificial intelligence and cyber defence between the three countries, has left France outraged. The country claimed to have been blindsided by the newly-forged alliance, which it slammed as a “stab in the back”.
President Emmanuel Macron recalled his ambassadors to the US and Australia in affront.
The unexpected move by the three nations angered both allies and rivals. As pundits speculate that the new alliance is aimed against China in nature, Beijing reacted by denouncing the “exclusionary bloc”.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that AUKUS “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race.”
“The US, the UK and Australia’s cooperation in nuclear submarines severely damages regional peace and stability, intensifies the arms race, and jeopardises the international efforts in promoting the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons… This is a highly irresponsible act,” emphasised Zhao Lijian.
Jean-Pierre Thebault, the recalled French envoy to Canberra, said his country felt “fooled” by the announcement, and likened the cancellation of the submarine deal to “treason.”
“We discover through [the] press that the most important person of this Australian government kept us in the dark intentionally until the last minute… This is not an Australian attitude towards France. And maybe we’re not friends,” Thebault told ABC radio on Monday.
Earlier, on Saturday evening, French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian slammed “duplicity” over the pact on TV channel France 2.
“There has been a lie, there has been duplicity, there has been a major breach of trust, there has been contempt,” he said, in a reference to reports that the three countries had conducted negotiations over the deal for months.
National Interests First
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who on Monday left for Washington to meet with leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) or QUAD Group, an informal strategic forum comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US, has deflected criticism over his government’s decision to abandon the submarine deal with France.
On Sunday, Morrison insisted the French government had known Canberra had “deep and grave concerns” about French submarines ahead of the pact’s announcement, as he had raised issues with the deal “some months ago,” along with other Australian government ministers.
“They would’ve had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns that the capability of the Attack Class submarines was not going to meet our strategic interests… I don’t regret the decision to put Australia’s national interest first,” Morrison told reporters Sunday in Sydney.
Speaking to Sky News Australia, Defense Minister Peter Dutton claimed his government had been “upfront, open and honest” with France regarding the “over-budget and years behind schedule” submarine deal.
“The government has had those concerns, we’ve expressed them, and we want to work very closely with the French, and we’ll continue to do that into the future,” said Dutton.