US seeks to soothe France after Australian nuclear sub row

© POOL From left, Australian Minister of Defence Peter Dutton, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin meet at the State Department. AP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday sought to quell France’s outrage after Washington announced a nuclear submarine deal with Australia, which has caused Paris to lose a $90 billion contract with Canberra.

The move prompted French officials to liken President Joe Biden to his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose “America First” agenda strained ties with many allies.

Mr Blinken took care to refer to France as a “valuable partner” during his opening remarks at a press conference alongside Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Australian counterparts — without mentioning the demise of Australia’s 2016 agreement with France to build 12 submarines.

“France in particular is a vital partner on this, on so many other things, stretching back a long, long time, but also stretching forward into the future,” Mr Blinken said when asked about France’s anger over the US-Australia deal.

“We want to find every opportunity now to deepen transatlantic co-operation in the Indo-Pacific and around the world.”

He said that US diplomats had been in touch with their French counterparts over the past two days to discuss the new defence pact, called Aukus, in which the US and the UK will deliver sensitive technology to Australia to help it produce its own nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

“We co-operate incredibly closely with France on many shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific, but also beyond, around the world. We’re going to continue to do so. We place a fundamental value on that relationship, on that partnership.”

But Mr Blinken has his work cut out for him, as his remarks came after a series of strongly worded barbs from his French counterpart.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called Aukus “a stab in the back” in an interview with Franceinfo radio.

“This sudden and unforeseeable decision very much recalls what Mr Trump would do,” said Mr Le Drian.

And The New York Times reported on Thursday that the French embassy in Washington cancelled a gala that had been scheduled for Friday to commemorate the 240th anniversary of a key Revolutionary War battle in which the French Navy assisted American forces against the British.

“The 🇺🇸 choice to exclude a 🇪🇺 ally and partner such as 🇫🇷 from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region (…) shows a lack of coherence that 🇫🇷 can only note and regret.”

— French Embassy U.S. (@franceintheus) September 16, 2021

Mr Biden ran for president in 2020 with a pledge to repair ties with European allies that had ruptured under Mr Trump.

But even as it seeks to soothe France in the fallout from the submarine deal, the Biden administration also seeks to push back against Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.

The US hopes that Aukus will pave the way for extended nuclear deterrence and that the new pact will also help Australia focus on things such as long-range strike capabilities.

China has vociferously condemned Aukus, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying that it “seriously undermines regional stability and intensifies the arms race”.

Asked about the Chinese response during Thursday’s press conference, Mr Austin echoed the repeated public denials within the Biden administration that the agreement is aimed at countering China.

“This agreement, this relationship is not aimed at anything,” said Mr Austin.

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