Australia is defending its decision to join a tripartite alliance with the United States and Britain despite an angry reaction from France.
Australia said Sunday it “regrets” France’s decision to immediately recall its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington in response to a new deal that will make Australia only the seventh country to have nuclear-powered submarines.
Australia scrapped a multibillion-dollar defense contract with France after joining the new AUKUS alliance with the U.S. and Britain.
It will, instead, build a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with help from the U.S. and the U.K. The pact is widely seen as an effort to counter China’s influence in the contested South China Sea.
Australian officials said they weren’t sure the Attack Class, diesel-powered submarines it had ordered from France were up to the job.
Prime minister Scott Morrison said it would have been “negligent” to go ahead with the deal, which was already reported to have been much delayed, against advice from Australia’s intelligence agencies and its military.
Australia’s new submarine fleet isn’t expected to be in service for decades, and it could lease or buy vessels from the United States or Britain in the meantime.
Morrison said the alliance would boost regional security.
“This is seen as a positive move that contributes to peace and stability. All countries will invest in their own defense capabilities, and, indeed, China does in theirs and as we know they have invested heavily in those capabilities,” he said.
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton Sunday defended Canberra’s handling of the multibillion-dollar submarine contract with France, describing his government as “upfront, open and honest” in its dealings with Paris.
France does not agree.
“It really is a stab in the back. We built a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed,” said French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The animosity could have wider implications. France said it would be unable to trust Australia in talks on forging a free trade agreement with the European Union, although EU officials have insisted negotiations will continue.
Hervé Lemahieu, the director of research at the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank based in Sydney, says France’s response to the AUKUS alliance was unexpected, but he is urging French president Emmanuel Macron not to overreact.
“It is quite unprecedented for France, or any country, to recall two ambassadors simultaneously from two different countries. France has to be careful not to overplay its hand. Their anger is legitimate and understandable but must not be allowed to take control of their foreign policy. It is not clear, for example, if [French president Emmanuel] Macron speaks for all of Europe given the silence of other EU capitals,” he said.
Lemahieu says that China’s military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region could also face a greater challenge from the new AUKUS alliance.
“The Chinese will read it as an escalatory act. There’s no question it will escalate great power competition, and now the question is does it create more stability or less stability? And that will be a key question for other countries in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
China has accused the new alliance partners of having a “Cold War mentality.”