France’s envoy in Canberra said on Saturday that Australia had made a “fatal” diplomatic mistake by abandoning a billion-euro order for French submarines in favor of an alternative deal with the United States and Britain.
Canberra announced Thursday that it will cancel its 2016 agreement with France’s Naval Group to build a fleet of conventional submarines and instead build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines using US and British technology after forging a trilateral security partnership.
The move infuriated France, an ally of the United States and Britain in the North Atlantic Treaty, which prompted it to recall its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra, and angered China, the main rising power in the Indo-Pacific region.
Malaysia said on Saturday that Canberra’s decision to build atomic-powered submarines could lead to a regional nuclear arms race, echoing concerns already raised by Beijing.
“This will provoke other forces to act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea,” the Malaysian prime minister’s office said, without mentioning China.
Beijing’s foreign policy in the region is becoming increasingly assertive, particularly its maritime claims in the resource-rich South China Sea, some of which conflict with Malaysia’s claims.
“This was a huge mistake, and a very poor handling of the partnership – because it was not a contract, it was a partnership that was supposed to be based on trust, mutual understanding and honesty,” France’s ambassador Jean-Pierre Thibault told reporters in Canberra before returning to Paris.
France previously called the cancellation of the deal – which amounted to €34 billion in 2016 and is worth much more today – a stab in the back.
Later, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the dispute as a “crisis” in France’s relations with the United States and Australia.
“There was contempt, contempt, lies – you can’t play that way in an alliance,” he told France 2 television.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said France was a “vital ally” and that the United States would work in the coming days to resolve differences.
Even if US officials hope the crisis will explode quickly, analysts say, it could do lasting damage to Washington’s alliance with France and Europe, and cast doubt on the united front that the Biden administration was seeking to forge against the growing power of China.
Australia said it regrets the recall of the French ambassador and that it values the relationship with France and will continue to engage with Paris on other issues.
“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and stated national security interests,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s spokeswoman said on Saturday.
Mr Thibault said he was very sad to leave Australia but added that there was a “need some reassessment” of bilateral relations.
In separate comments to SBS Radio, Mr Thebault said of the abandoned agreement: “It wasn’t about selling salads or potatoes, it was a relationship of trust at the highest level covering questions of the highest level of confidentiality and sensitivity.”
The spat between Paris and Canberra marks the lowest point in their relations since 1995, when Australia protested France’s decision to resume nuclear tests in the South Pacific and recalled its ambassador for consultations.
Public opinion in France, where President Emmanuel Macron is expected to seek a second term in elections scheduled for next year, also strongly criticized Australia and the United States.
“You can understand for geopolitical reasons that Australia is getting closer to other English-speaking countries like the United States and Britain,” said Louis Maman, a Parisian surgeon who went out for a walk Saturday on the Champs-Elysees.
“But there was a real contract and I think there was alliance and friendship between Australia and France. It spoils a friendship,” he said. “I considered it a betrayal.” – Reuters
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