Submarine deal row: No need to prove affection for France, says Australia DPM

A Tomahawk cruise missile on March 29, 2011. Australia acquired American nuclear-powered vessels after secret talks.
A Tomahawk cruise missile on March 29, 2011. Australia acquired American nuclear-powered vessels after secret talks.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP, REUTERS) - Australia has already proven its affection for France through the sacrifice of Aussie soldiers during World War I and World War II, the country's deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce claimed on Monday (Sept 20), stoking a row over a major submarine contract.

This comes as Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan said on Monday he will seek a meeting with his French counterpart to ease tensions over the deal.

Following French fury at Canberra's decision to abruptly cancel a multibillion-dollar submarine contract negotiated over the years, Mr Joyce weighed in.

Australia does not need to prove its affinity, affection and resolute desire "to look after the liberty and the freedom and the equality of France", said Mr Joyce, who is currently acting prime minister while Mr Scott Morrison visits Washington.

"We have tens of thousands of Australians who have either died on French soil or died protecting French soil from the countries that surround them, in both the First World War and the Second World War," he added.

His reference to difficult periods in France's history around a century ago is unlikely to soothe French anger.

Paris has repeatedly lashed out at Australia and the United States after Canberra last week backed out of a major deal to buy 12 conventional French submarines, instead choosing to acquire American nuclear-powered vessels after secret talks.

French President Emmanuel Macron has recalled France's ambassadors to Canberra and Washington, while French officials have accused the nations of lying over a linked defence alliance that also includes Britain.

Canberra has stressed the importance of ties with France but defended the decision as in Australia's national interest, which comes as the nation looks to counter the rising influence of China in the Asia-Pacific region.

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

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

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

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 Australia banned Chinese tech giant Huawei from involvement in its nascent 5G broadband network and called for an enquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus. 

China has responded by impeding imports of Australian goods and it ceased all ministerial communications. 

But Mr Tehan said if China would like to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc it would have to engage with Australia.