French defence minister ‘postpones' UK talks as Aukus row deepens

© Provided by Al Jazeera Parly had been scheduled to stage a bilateral meeting this week in London with UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and address an event held by the Franco-British Council [File: Charles Platiau/Reuters]

France has pulled out of defence talks with the United Kingdom, the latest escalation of a serious diplomatic row over a new security deal between Britain, the United States and Australia.

French defence chief Florence Parly had been scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting this week in London with her British counterpart, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, and address an event held by the Franco-British Council.

But the council’s co-chair Lord Ricketts, a former British national security adviser and ambassador to Paris, said the gathering had been “postponed to a later date”, the BBC reported on Monday.

An unnamed UK defence source confirmed to the UK’s PA news agency that the meeting had been “postponed, not cancelled”.

Parly’s move came after the UK, the US and Australia last week announced they had struck a new trilateral security partnership, dubbed Aukus, for the Indo-Pacific region.

As part of the pact, Australia said it would end a multibillion-dollar deal brokered in 2016 with France’s Naval Group to build a fleet of conventional submarines and instead acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with US and British technology.

The announcement angered Paris, prompting President Emmanuel Macron’s government to recall its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.

No such step was followed for London, with France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, suggesting that was because the UK was a “junior partner” which had accepted its “vassalisation” by the US.

Beaune told reporters the UK was subordinate to the US on foreign policy issues post-Brexit, accusing London of having returned to Washington’s “lap”.

UK PM offers assurances to Paris

US, UK and Australian officials have attempted to ease France’s fury by reassuring Paris that it remains a vital ally.

In the latest such attempt, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday urged Macron not to “worry” about the Aukus pact and claimed UK-France relations were “very friendly” despite the diplomatic turmoil.

“Our love of France is ineradicable,” Johnson told reporters while flying to New York for the upcoming UN General Assembly.

“Aukus is not in any way meant to be zero-sum, it’s not meant to be exclusionary. It’s not something that anybody needs to worry about and particularly not our French friends.”

Meanwhile, Australia’s acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said his country did not need to prove its “affinity and affection” to France, pointing out that thousands of Australians died on French soil during the two world wars.

“Australia doesn’t need to prove … their resolute desire to look after the liberty and the freedom and the equality of France,” said Joyce, who is officiating in the absence of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, currently on the US visit.

Canberra has repeatedly stressed the importance of French ties in recent days but also defended the Aukus pact as in Australia’s national interest.

The deal is understood to be an attempt to counter the growing influence wielded by China, which has resolutely condemned the agreement.

Beijing claims the alliance will destabilise the Indo-Pacific region to the detriment of global security.

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