The Australian decision to cancel a $66 billion deal to buy 12 French diesel-electric submarines and to purchase instead at least eight more sophisticated nuclear-powered attack boats from Britain and America continues to reverberate with French officials smarting at what they see as a betrayal by London and Washington.
And there are few signs the dispute will abate any time soon.
European Union leaders are rallying behind France in the dispute over the shelving of the multi-billion-dollar French deal and Canberra’s decision to sign up to a trilateral Asia Pacific security pact, known as AUKUS, with the United States and Britain, an alliance notably excluding Paris.
Speaking after a meeting Monday among EU foreign ministers held in New York on the sidelines of this week’s annual gathering for the United Nations General Assembly, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the foreign ministers “expressed clear solidarity with France.”
Borrell chided Washington and London saying, “More cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation” was needed among Western powers in the Indo-Pacific region where China is the major rising power and is promoting alarm among its neighbors. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNN, “One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. We want to know what happened and why.”
Last week France recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington — a dramatic demonstration of French anger. And France's foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has accused U.S. President Joe Biden of continuing the “unilateralism, unpredictability, brutality” of his predecessor Donald Trump, says he does not intend to meet his U.S. counterpart, Antony Blinken, while in New York.
“I myself do not intend to meet the Secretary of State Blinken,” Le Drian told reporters Monday. The French have also been avoiding timetabling a phone conversation between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.
France claims not to have been consulted by Australia about the plan to scupper what the French once branded the “deal of the century;” Australia says it did raise concerns with Paris for months over the contract, which was struck in 2016. Australian politicians have been emphasizing that the French contractors had fallen well behind schedule. “This has been a farce from day one,” Stephen Conroy, a former Australian senator, told Australian broadcaster Sky News. “This was a deal that was destined to fail,” he says.
French officials say they were only informed last week in writing just hours before the announcement by Britain, the US and Australia of an agreement that will see Australia become only the seventh state in the world with a nuclear-powered submarine fleet.
France’s reliability in question
While the core Australian decision rested on Canberra’s military assessment of its needs in the Indo-Pacific region, prompting an equipment upgrade, the move to exclude France from the trilateral defense pact, reveals much about Anglo-American suspicions of France’s reliability as a partner, say some former Western foreign and defense ministers and diplomats.
In defense circles in Washington and London, France is often seen as a frenemy, all too ready to grab commercial and diplomatic advantage over the United States and Britain and to exercise an independent mindedness that can make it an unpredictable military ally going back to General Charles De Gaulle’s 1966 decision to withdraw France abruptly from NATO.
Former British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt accused France Tuesday of wanting to have its cake and eat it, having one foot in the U.S.-led alliance while on the other pushing for an alternative French-led European defense alliance and backing an EU investment deal with China which granted better access to Europe’s single market than given to post-Brexit Britain. “France has long believed Europe should build an independent defence capability,” he wrote Tuesday for Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.
An alternative defense arrangement that loosens transatlantic ties with Washington is not conceivable without British backing, he says. The French are “bitterly aware that our central involvement in a new Asian military alliance led by the U.S. makes it much less likely that any European alliance, with or without Britain, would ever be a credible alternative to American leadership,” he says.
Another former British foreign minister, Willam Hague, agrees “the petulant French reaction to the consequent loss of a huge defence contract does little to elicit sympathy.” And he notes in a commentary: “Paris would not have hesitated to do the same the other way round.” But he says that as the AUKUS initiative develops beyond submarines into areas such as artificial intelligence, it should be open for others to join, including Canada and European allies such as France.
But analyst Olivier Guitta, managing director of GlobalStrat, an international security and risk consultancy firm in London, believes Washington and London should have been much more diplomatic, and instead of blindsiding Paris should have consulted and offered the French a slice of the new deal. “There was surely a way to find a consensus between the four allies, even when bringing the U.S. and the U.K. to the table, like splitting the contract in three,” he told VOA.
“It is quite ironic that Biden has pushed away France since in the past few months France has been one of the most sanguine to oppose China’s influence in the region,” he says. “Indeed, back in March China complained about French military activities in the disputed South China Sea, after it sent two warships there,” Guitta said.