Australia riles France with sudden US-UK nuclear submarine pact

US President Joe Biden participates is a virtual press conference on national security with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 15, 2021.
US President Joe Biden participates is a virtual press conference on national security with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 15, 2021. © Brendan Smialowski, AFP

France accused US President Joe Biden on Thursday of stabbing it in the back and acting like his predecessor Donald Trump after Paris was pushed aside from a lucrative defence deal that it had signed with Australia for submarines to strengthen Canberra’s military capabilities in the face of a rising China.


"It's really a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Info radio.

"I'm very angry today, and bitter... this is not something allies do to each other," he said, noting that Australia would now have to explain how it would exit the contract.

Le Drian also said Biden’s conduct was reminiscent of his predecessor Trump, who exasperated Europe with unpredictable decision-making.

"This unilateral, sudden and unforeseeable decision very much recalls what Mr. Trump would do," Le Drian added, describing what has happened as "unacceptable" and "incomprehensible."

France's Naval Group, partly owned by the state, had been chosen to build 12 conventionally powered submarines for Australia, based on France's Barracuda nuclear-powered subs in development.

The contract was worth around 50 billion Australian dollars (€31 billion, $36.5 billion) when announced in 2016.

But Biden announced a new US security alliance with Australia and Britain on Wednesday, that would develop an Australian nuclear-powered submarine fleet.


Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he told French President Emmanuel Macron in June that there were “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address Australia’s strategic security needs in the Indo-Pacific. 

“Of course they’re disappointed,” Morrison said. "They've been good partners. This is about our strategic interest, our strategic capability requirements and a changed strategic environment and we’ve had to take that decision.”

EU ‘not informed’ on AUKUS alliance

The Australia-UK-US alliance – dubbed AUKUS – announcement came just before the EU was scheduled to detail its own Indo-Pacific strategy on Thursday.

The alliance fuelled fears in Brussels that Washington was cutting out the EU at time when several European capitals are still smarting over the way the US handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Thursday complained that Brussels was kept out of the loop on the AUKUS partnership.

"We regret not having being informed, not having been part of these talks," said Borrell. "I understand how disappointed the French government will be."

But he insisted that ties with Washington had still improved dramatically since Biden replaced Trump.

"The AUKUS security partnership further demonstrates the need for a common EU approach in a region of strategic interest," European Council chief Charles Michel wrote on Twitter, adding that EU leaders would discuss it at a meeting in October. 

The AUKUS headlines overshadowed the unveiling of the EU’s own Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at "exploring ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments by EU Member States to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation", a statement said.

This could anger China, which denied a request from a German frigate to make a port call in Shanghai this week.

China blasts alliance, warns of arms race

Beijing on Thursday blasted the AUKUS alliance and warned of an arms escalation in the region.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the three countries were "severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts".

"China always believes that any regional mechanism should conform to the trend of peace and development of the times and help enhance mutual trust and cooperation ... It should not target any third party or undermine its interests," he told a regular briefing in Beijing.

>>> Read more: 'Geostrategic consensus' on China keeps US-UK relationship special

Australia has welcomed the alliance, with Defence Force Chief Gen. Angus Campbell noting that, “Our strategic environment has deteriorated. That challenging environment is becoming more challenging and is set to do so into the future at an accelerated pace.”

Xi Jinping ‘responsible for Australia going down this track’

Left out of the new alliance was Australia's South Pacific neighbour New Zealand, which in the 1980s enacted policies and laws to ensure it remains nuclear-free. That includes a ban on nuclear-powered ships entering New Zealand ports, a stance which has seen it clash, at times, with the US.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday that New Zealand wasn’t asked to be part of the alliance and wouldn’t have expected an invitation. 

“The centerpiece, the anchor of this arrangement are nuclear-powered submarines,” Ardern said. “And it will be very clear to all New Zealanders, and to Australia, why New Zealand would not wish to be a part of that project.”

Ardern said the new alliance didn’t diminish its close ties to the US, Britain, Australia and also Canada, which had been solidified through the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement. 

Morrison said Ardern was the first foreign leader he called to explain the new alliance. He later called the leaders of Japan and India. The two countries combined with the United States and Australia form the Quad security dialogue.

“She was my first call because of the strength of our relationship and the relationship between our countries,” Morrison said. “All in the region will benefit from the peace and the stability and security that this partnership will add to our region.”

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, said the submarine decision was a response to China’s takeover of the South China Sea, aggressive bullying of Australia and intimidation of Japan and Taiwan.

“We should call the first submarine in this new category the ‘Xi Jinping,’ because no person is more responsible for Australia going down this track than the current leader of the Chinese Communist Party,” Jennings told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Australia would become the first country without nuclear weapons to obtain nuclear-powered submarines.

Australia would discuss with the US, and Britain how the submarines' nuclear waste should be disposed, Defence Department Secretary Greg Moriarty said. 

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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