Australia had ‘deep and grave concerns’ over French submarines: PM Scott Morrison

Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said Australia had been raising concerns with France over the submarine order for a couple of years. PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (AFP, REUTERS) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday (Sept 19) that the French government would have known Canberra had "deep and grave concerns" about French submarines before the deal was torn up last week.

France is furious at Australia's decision to withdraw from a multibillion-dollar deal to build French submarines in favour of American nuclear-powered vessels, recalling its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington and accusing its allies of "lying" about their plans.

The deal has put Washington in an unprecedented diplomatic crisis with France that analysts say could do lasting damage to the US alliance with France and Europe, throwing into doubt the united front that the Joe Biden administration has been seeking to forge against China's growing power.

Mr Morrison said he understood the French government's "disappointment" but said he had raised issues with the deal "some months ago", as had other Australian government ministers.

"I think they would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns that the capability being delivered by the Attack Class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests and we made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest," he told a press conference in Sydney.

Mr Morrison said it would have been "negligent" to proceed with the deal against intelligence and defence advice and that doing so would be counter to Australia's strategic interests.

"I don't regret the decision to put Australia's national interest first. Never will," he said.

Australia was "upfront, open and honest" with France about its concerns over French submarines, Australia's Defence Minister Peter Dutton said on Sunday.

Paris has called the cancellation a stab in the back, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian saying that relations with the US and Australia were in a "crisis".

But Mr Dutton said on Sunday that Australia had been raising concerns with France over the order - valued at US$40 billion (S$53.9 billion) in 2016 and reckoned to cost much more today - for a couple of years.

"Suggestions that the concerns hadn't been flagged by the Australian government just defy, frankly, what's on the public record and certainly what they've said publicly over a long period of time," Mr Dutton told Sky News.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said Australia had informed France of the deal but acknowledged on Sunday the negotiations had been secret, given the "enormous sensitivities".

Mr Dutton and Mr Birmingham declined to reveal costs of the new pact, although Mr Dutton said "it's not going to be a cheap project".

Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the new security pact with Australia and the US showed Britain's readiness to be "hard-headed" in defending its own interests.

"This is about more than foreign policy in the abstract, but delivering for people across the UK and beyond by partnering with like-minded countries to build coalitions based on shared values and shared interests," the newly appointed Ms Truss wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

"We will be working closer together to use a wide range of cutting-edge technologies, from nuclear-powered submarines at first and then looking at artificial intelligence and quantum computing. It shows our readiness to be hard-headed in defending our interests and challenging unfair practices and malign acts."

Ms Truss said it also showed Britain's commitment to security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

The United States sought to assuage France's anger, and the French government spokesman said on Sunday that President Emmanuel Macron would have a call with Mr Biden "in the next few days".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.