Scott Morrison not planning to discuss submarine deal with French President Emmanuel Macron while at United Nations General Assembly

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended Australia’s decision to scrap a $90 billion submarine contract with France, and says he has no plans to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Mr Morrison has flown to the United States for a week of high-stakes diplomacy amid the row with France, which is angry Australia has chosen to buy nuclear-powered submarines in a partnership with the US and UK instead.

Speaking on the tarmac of John F Kennedy Airport in New York, Mr Morrison said it would be naïve to think France would not be disappointed with the decision, but he had to make it in Australia’s national interest.

When asked if he was seeking to meet with Mr Macron, he said now was not the right time, even though US President Joe Biden had asked for a phone call to smooth over relations.

“It was not possible for us to be able to discuss such secure issues in relation to our dealing with other countries at that time,” Mr Morrison said.

“We had made it very clear, I had made it very clear, that a conventional submarine would no longer be meeting our strategic interests and what we needed those boats to do.

“That had been communicated very clearly many months ago, we were working through those issues, so to suggest somehow that this decision could have been taken without causing this disappointment, I think, would be very naïve.”

When asked if he thought the decision would put the EU’s Free Trade Agreement with Australia at risk, Mr Morrison deflected.

“I can only really quote the Foreign Affairs chief from the European Commission, who says you don’t mix apples and pears. I think that’s a pretty good summary of the situation,” he said.

Mr Morrison will spend 24 hours in New York, on the sidelines of the 76th UNGA, where he will talk to representatives of several countries and hold a one-on-one with Mr Biden.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne will also join the meeting.

The submarine deal — which involves leveraging US technology to a build a fleet of nuclear-powered vessels — is expected to be discussed alongside China’s rise, the next steps on countering global terrorism and climate change.

Mr Morrison will also meet with European leaders on Tuesday to discuss rising security threats in the Indo-Pacific. He will meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Washington DC in the evening.

Mr Biden will deliver his address to the UNGA with a heavy focus on strengthening US alliances, especially now the country has withdrawn from Afghanistan.

While Mr Morrison’s address will be aired on Friday, the main purpose of his trip is the meeting of Quad nations which includes the US, Japan, India and Australia, in Washington on Friday.

The White House is positioning the power bloc of democracies as critical for pandemic and climate cooperation, as well as its counter force against China.

The nuclear submarine deal — signed between Australia, the UK and the US under a trilateral security pact — will heavily feature in discussions over the next week.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian labelled the move a “stab in the back” and Mr Macron responded by withdrawing France’s ambassadors to Canberra and Washington.

The foray into nuclear-powered vessels has also sent shudders through allies in Asia, concerned it will stoke tensions in the region, in particular with Beijing, which reacted angrily to the news.

Mr Morrison phoned Indonesian President Joko Widodo mid-flight over the Pacific to explain the decision and stressed the vessels would not be armed with nuclear weapons.

The PM told Mr Widodo that Australia would maintain its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

What else is on General Assembly’s docket?

The UNGA is expected to discuss ways to tackle COVID-19, the chaotic Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, tensions with Iran and North Korea, as well as growing rivalry between the US and China.

It is also seen as the last opportunity to lock in global commitments before November’s UN Global Climate Summit in Glasgow.

Mr Morrison is expected face pressure to bolster his plan to cut emissions, with his target significantly lagging behind that made by other global leaders, including the US and the UK.

Australia’s medium-term target is a 26-28 per cent cut on 2005 emissions levels by 2030, well below the Biden Administration’s pledge to halve emissions within that timeframe, while the UK is aiming to reduce numbers by 68 per cent.

Senior figures in the Biden Administration have publicly criticised Australia’s lack of ambition on climate action in recent months.

In February, Mr Kerry acknowledged “differences” between the US and Australia in tackling climate change while calling for a faster exit from coal-fired power.

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