France’s foreign minister has described Australia’s decision to cancel a $90 billion submarine deal as a “stab in the back”.
On Thursday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a joint statement with his British counterpart Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden to announce the formation of a security partnership in the Indo-Pacific.
The partnership will culminate with Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines and technology from the United Kingdom and United States.
Prior to the announcement, Australian officials had notified their French counterparts of their intention to cancel the deal to obtain 12 conventionally powered submarines from French defence contractor Naval Group, which was first signed in 2016.
Just two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton had reconfirmed the deal with their French counterparts, despite Defence secretary Greg Moriarty revealing in June in a Senate estimates hearing that alternatives were being looked at as delays to the project emerged and costs ballooned.
And later in June, French President Emmanuel Macron hailed Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific during a meeting with Mr Morrison in Paris.
But in comments given to radio station franceinfo by France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, that relationship appears to have been strained by the cancellation.
“It’s a stab in the back,” he said.
“We created a relationship of trust with Australia and that trust has been broken.”
Mr Le Drian also took aim at Mr Biden in his comments, saying he had acted like his predecessor Donald Trump, who had an at-times fraught relationship with European allies.
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” he said.
“I am angry and bitter.
“This isn’t done between allies.”
The European Union, which launched its own Indo-Pacific strategy on Thursday, said it was not consulted about the cancellation of the deal and understood France’s disappointment.
“It doesn’t weaken our relations with Australia,” the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said.
“It’s a partner that we have in the region.
“I understand how disappointed the French government will be.”
France remains important partner, PM says
Mr Morrison said France remained an important partner in the Pacific, but he had to make decisions in the best interests of Australia’s national security.
Speaking on radio station 6PR, he also said the contract with Naval Group was reaching a final opportunity to cancel the deal.
“You have gates in contracts for a reason and we were approaching a very important, effectively final gate on that contract from which there was no point of return,” he said.
“To have that opportunity to go down the nuclear submarine pathway was very important.”
It is understood around $2 billion had already been spent on the now-cancelled contract.
The announcement of the new partnership, dubbed AUKUS, and the plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines has also angered China, which was not mentioned by any leader during the video conference but is seen by the West as the main security concern in the region.
“The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology by the United States and Britain to Australia once again proves that they use nuclear exports as a tool of geopolitical games and adopt double standards, which is extremely irresponsible,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said during a press briefing.
He added that the deal gave regional countries “reason to question Australia’s sincerity in abiding by its nuclear non-proliferation commitments”.
Video: France ‘remains an incredibly important partner’ as submarine deal scrapped (Sky News Australia)Internet Explorer Channel Network