London: A furious France says Australia stabbed it in the back while the United States was accused of conducting a “hostile act” by helping sabotage a $90 billion submarine deal, as the shockwaves from the new AUKUS alliance spread across the continent on Thursday.
In June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was secretly negotiating a deal to acquire US nuclear submarine technology with US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the G7 in Cornwall, while at the same time telling French President Emmanuel Macron that the submarine deal was back on track.
On Thursday morning, the trio shocked France in announcing the new AUKUS defence alliance which would involve Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.
Morrison did not convey the news directly to Macron before making the public announcement. Macron is due to raise the issue at dinner with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was furious and hit the airwaves.
“It is really a stab in the back. We built a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed and I’m angry today, with a lot of bitterness, about this breach [of contract],” he told France Info radio.
“This is not done between allies, especially when there’s been two years of negotiations for this contract.”
“It’s a slap in our face,” France’s former ambassador to the US Gérard Araud told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in an interview.
He said Morrison had never given the French the impression that he could walk away from the entire contract without notice or negotiation.
“Even if you concluded that the program was wrecked it was not necessary to do it in this sort of brutal and inelegant way,” he said.
“For us, Australia was the pillar of our Indo-Pacific strategy, we had the impression that we had created a political partnership with Australia, so it’s really quite insulting to see overnight the Australians saying ‘we don’t care’.
“Everything we have done with the Australians has been thrown overboard in a night.”
When asked if the relationship was salvageable for future collaborations, Araud said: “No, no, it’s not possible.”
“The way it was done – the submarines we were selling were nuclear-powered – why didn’t Australia take France on board? Why? Not only did they scrap the contract, they are kicking the French out.
“There was no reason why we shouldn’t be part of this new game.”
He said the damage was not just confined to the Australia-France relationship. France’s Foreign Minister said Biden’s secret negotiations were something former US president Donald Trump would do.
Araud said it was a “hostile act” from the United States.
“The US has trampled our national interest. What the US has done to our national interest is a hostile act,” he said.
“What we were doing with the Australians was a strategic choice and this strategic choice has been swept away, not only by the Australians but also by the Americans.”
He said the British involvement was immaterial because they were “poodles of the Americans, as usual”.
In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson came under pressure to declare that the relationship with France was “rock solid”, while Defence Secretary Ben Wallace conceded “if it had happened to us, I would have been deeply disappointed [for Britain’s defence industry].”
Former British prime minister Theresa May asked if the agreement would result in Britain being dragged into military conflict if China invaded Taiwan.
The fallout overshadowed the European Commission’s new Indo-Pacific strategy unveiled in Brussels which expressed interest in joint maritime exercises with its partners in the region, including Australia.
Josep Borrell, Vice-President of the Commission, was repeatedly questioned about the AUKUS alliance as he unveiled the new European strategy.
“I suppose that a deal like that wasn’t cooked the day before yesterday,” Borrell said. “Despite that, we weren’t informed.”
The communiqué also stated that concluding a free trade agreement with Australia was one of its objectives and assured Australia that the security pact would not affect the future of those negotiations.
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