Aussie trade minister seeks French meeting over scrapped sub deal

Move to ease tensions comes as he says he is confident row will not affect free trade talks with EU

CANBERRA • Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan said yesterday that he will seek a meeting with his French counterpart to ease tensions over Canberra's decision to scrap a US$40 billion (S$54 billion) submarine deal.

Australia last week said it would end the deal with France's Naval Group to build a fleet of conventional submarines and would instead build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with US and British technology after striking a trilateral security partnership with those two countries.

France was infuriated and said its relationships with Australia and the United States are in crisis. It also recalled its ambassadors from both countries, stoking fears over Australia's bid for a free trade deal with Europe.

Mr Tehan said he was confident the row would not spill over and impact trade but added that he would seek a meeting with his French counterpart when he is in Paris for an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development meeting next month.

"I will be very keen to touch base with my French counterpart while I'm in France," he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

Australian and European Union officials are scheduled to hold their next round of talks over a trade deal on Oct 12.

The Australian-French bilateral tensions come as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison travels to Washington for a meeting of the Quad group of countries - comprising India, Japan, the US and Australia - later this week.

While France has been the most vocal critic of Australia's defence deal, China - which is seen as the catalyst for Australia's decision to build a new fleet of submarines - has also condemned the trilateral pact.

Australia's relations with China have deteriorated over the past two years after the former banned Chinese tech giant Huawei from involvement in its nascent 5G broadband network and called for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.

China has responded by impeding imports of Australian goods and ceasing all ministerial communications. But Mr Tehan said that if China would like to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc, it would have to engage with Australia.

Meanwhile, the US and Britain sought to smooth tensions with Paris over the new security pact with Australia, with US President Joe Biden requesting early talks with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to downplay France's concerns about the deal, saying the pact was "not meant to be exclusionary... It's not something that anybody needs to worry about, and particularly not our French friends".

Mr Biden has requested a phone call with Mr Macron, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said, which would happen "in the coming days".

"We want explanations," Mr Attal said, adding that the US had to answer for "what looks a lot like a major breach of trust".

Still, Paris' fury at what it sees as a "stab in the back" threatens to have long-term diplomatic repercussions.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last Saturday the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation would have to take account of what has happened as it reconsiders strategy at a summit in Madrid next year.

France would now prioritise developing an EU security strategy when it takes over the bloc's presidency at the start of next year, he added.

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune has hinted that the row could affect Australia's chances of making progress towards a trade pact with the EU, its third-biggest trading partner.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2021, with the headline 'Aussie trade minister seeks French meeting over scrapped sub deal'. Subscribe