Scott Morrison says it would have been naive not to expect France to react angrily after Australia cancelled its lucrative $90 billion submarine contract as the Prime Minister arrived in the United States for meetings with President Joe Biden and other world leaders.
Morrison, speaking after touching down at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, said there was no way Australia could have been more transparent with the French about its plans without potentially derailing the highly sensitive plan to acquire the US and UK’s nuclear-powered submarine technology.
“It would be naive to think a decision of this nature was not going to cause disappointment, obviously, to the French,” Morrison said.
“We understand that, we totally acknowledge that and we knew that would be the case.
“And it was not possible for us to be able to discuss such secure issues in relation to our dealings with other countries at the time.”
In a telephone call en route to New York, Morrison sought to calm Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s concerns that the AUKUS submarine pact will lead to a new arms race in the Indo-Pacific.
Morrison will meet with Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly for their first one-on-one meeting on Wednesday (AEST).
As well as raising concerns in south-east Asia, the cancellation of the $90 billion submarines deal with France continues to reverberate in Europe and complicate efforts to strike a free trade deal with the European Union.
After recalling the country’s ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, the French Foreign Minister excluded Foreign Minister Marise Payne from a planned trilateral meeting with their Indian counterpart in New York.
Representatives from the 27 European Union nations will meet on Monday night (Tuesday morning AEST) in New York to discuss the “crisis” with Australia and whether to proceed with free trade discussions.
Several Australian government sources said they believed France was trying to scuttle the free trade deal to punish Australia for cancelling the submarines contract.
As well as meeting with Biden, Morrison is scheduled to meet in New York with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the leaders of Sweden and Austria.
In her first public comments about the AUKUS pact, von de Leyen said there were “a lot of questions that have to be answered” about the trilateral partnership.
“One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable,” von de Leyen said.
“We want to know what happened and why, and first of all clarify that before we keep going on with business as usual.”
Later on Wednesday (AEST) Morrison will meet over dinner with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Australian ambassador’s residence in Washington D.C.
In his phone call with Joko, Morrison said he would send a team to Jakarta for briefings on the new AUKUS partnership and Australia’s plans to develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
A summary of the call provided by the Prime Minister’s Office said that Morrison assured Joko that Australia would maintain all its nuclear non-proliferation agreements and that AUKUS would “contribute to peace and stability and a strategic balance in the region”.
In a statement following the submarines announcement, Indonesia’s foreign ministry said it was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”, echoing concerns among other south-east Asian nations.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed last week that Joko rebuffed Morrison’s request to visit Jakarta for a meeting following his trip to the US, a decision made before the submarines announcement.
In a bid to quell concerns in south-east Asia, Australia’s ambassador to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Will Nankervis issued a statement declaring that AUKUS “is not a defence alliance or pact”.
The agreement “does not change Australia’s commitment to ASEAN nor our ongoing support for the ASEAN-led regional architecture”, Nankervis said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was set to discuss the Indo-Pacific during a trilateral meeting in New York with Payne and Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, but Payne was excluded from the meeting.
“This meeting will only be held for two [countries] for obvious reasons,” Le Drian told the French newspaper Ouest-France in a clear reference to the cancelled submarines contract.
The snub is notable because Payne and Le Drian had a close relationship stretching back to their time as defence ministers when the lucrative submarine contract was struck. Payne once called Le Drian a “very dear friend”.
The Australian, French and Indonesian foreign ministers held their first trilateral meeting in May, and said they intended to meet again before the end of the year.
Le Drian said that the “Australian crisis and breach of the submarines agreement” had been added to the schedule for a meeting of EU foreign ministers where a proposed free trade pact with Australia is also expected to be discussed.
The European Commission leads trade negotiations on behalf of EU member states, but France is powerful enough to influence whether the talks proceed.
Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan is due to travel to Europe next month for a fresh round of free trade negotiations.
European Commission chief spokesperson Eric Mamer said the bloc was “analysing the impact of the AUKUS announcement” on the October talks and will “have to see what decisions are taken on this”.Internet Explorer Channel Network