Australia has rejected accusations of lying in the dispute over the collapsed submarine deal with France while seeking damage control in the bilateral relationship. The government in Canberra insisted Sunday it had not withheld its concerns over problems in the submarine deal with the French. "We have been frank, open and honest," Defense Minister Peter Dutton told Sky News Australia.
"Of course I understand the French are angry about the cancellation of the contract, but ultimately our job is to act in our national interest," Dutton said. "The government had these concerns, we raised them," he said. Prime Minister Scott Morrison also named them to French President Emmanuel Macron, he said, and Dutton himself named them to Defense Minister Florence Parly. Only recently, he said, France sent a military representative to Australia to try to salvage the deal.
The U.S., Britain and Australia had recently announced the formation of a new Indo-Pacific security alliance. As a result, Australia dropped a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with France. Instead, Australia wants to acquire American nuclear submarines. France reacted most angrily to the announcement and, in an unusual diplomatic move between allies, recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra for consultations on Friday.
France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Saturday accused the United States and Australia of "lying" and "duplicity" as well as a serious breach of trust and "disrespect." NATO's future is strained by the incident, he told France 2 radio, adding that it has implications for defining the defense alliance's new strategic concept.
Australia's defense minister on Sunday commented on the collapsed arms deal with France, saying a review of the deal showed that in light of the changed world situation, Australia would be better served by nuclear-powered submarines than by conventionally powered ones from the French Naval Group. To be sure, the French could also have equipped the submarines with nuclear propulsion. But they would then have had to be refitted with new nuclear material every seven to ten years. Since Australia does not have its own nuclear industry, this was not an option. The American and British submarines, on the other hand, would not have to be refilled for their entire service life of about 35 years.
The government in Canberra also had to take the opposition into account. The Social Democratic Labor Party would otherwise not have agreed to the acquisition of submarines of this type. The defense minister confirmed that Australia could now lease nuclear-powered submarines from the Americans and the British to bridge the gap until the first Australian-built submarines are available in ten years at the earliest. He said he has already had some discussions on this.
Dutton pointed out that China and other countries are currently expanding their fleets at breakneck speed. "This is unfortunately the environment in which we are currently operating," Dutton said. Before him, Prime Minister Morrison had also rejected the accusations from France. Like the defense secretary, the prime minister had referred to the "new strategic environment" in the Indo-Pacific.
Britain's new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also defended her country's security pact with the United States and Australia on Sunday. "Freedoms must be defended, so we are building strong security relationships around the world," the Conservative politician wrote in the Telegraph newspaper. After nuclear-powered submarines, she said, the alliance also wants to expand the use of artificial intelligence for defense. Britain is thus showing its commitment to security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, she added.
A White House official had expressed regret Saturday that France had recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia in the conflict. "We will continue to work to overcome our differences in the future, as we have at other moments in our long partnership."
State Department spokesman Ned Price expressed understanding for the anger in Paris and the hope of being able to discuss the issue with France at next week's United Nations General Assembly General Debate in New York. France, he said, is a very important and "our oldest partner." Pentagon spokesman John Kirby conceded that telephone conversations between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his French counterpart Parly showed "that there is much work to be done with respect to our relationship on defense issues with France."
Image by David Mark