France, Australia to meet in move to mend ties following submarine row

Australia’s then prime minister Scott Morrison abruptly tore up the contract for France to build a dozen diesel-powered submarines in 2021. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

PARIS – Australian and French ministers are to meet on Monday in a fresh drive to mend fences 16 months after Canberra pulled the plug on a big submarine contract, leaving Paris seething.

A bitter row erupted in September 2021 over the deal.

Australia’s then prime minister Scott Morrison abruptly tore up the contract for France to build a dozen diesel-powered submarines and announced a deal to buy US or British nuclear-powered subs.

The submarine row came as part of a new security pact between Australia, Britain and the United States – dubbed Aukus – aimed at countering a rising China.

The row derailed relations and threatened to sink a European Union-Australia trade agreement.

But both countries have started to make up since Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took power in Canberra, vowing to fix links with Paris.

Last November, French President Emmanuel Macron said his country’s submarine offer “remains on the table”, a day after meeting Mr Albanese at a Group of 20 summit in Indonesia.

The submarines would be conventional, not nuclear, and built in Australia, Mr Macron said.

Last July, Mr Albanese had already hailed a new start in ties during a visit to Paris, stressing he would act with “trust, respect and honesty” in his dealings with Mr Macron.

‘Back on track’

Monday’s meeting in Paris of French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu with their Australian counterparts Penny Wong and Richard Marles is to build on “the positive momentum” seen since Mr Albanese’s July trip, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Anne-Claire Legendre.

An official at the defence ministry told AFP that “the relationship is back on track”, but needed to be deepened if it is to result in “concrete actions”.

It was not yet clear whether Monday’s meeting would lead to such tangible results, the official said.

France considers itself a Pacific power, thanks to its overseas territories including New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Observers say better relations with Canberra would help it assert influence there.

But, they said, it is uncertain how far Mr Macron wants to align his strategy there with that of the Aukus members.

A French army officer told AFP that the Asia-Pacific region “is a major zone of interest for both China and the United States”.

The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, added that China’s ambitions in the region “require a strategic response”, but that France should be wary of joining what could be seen as an “anti-China coalition”.

Mr Macron has said that France could act as a “balancing power” between Beijing and Washington in the region.

However, experts say the distance to mainland France and a relatively weak military presence will limit any French designs there.

Ms Wong and Mr Marles said in a joint statement ahead of the Paris visit that discussions “will develop and align French and Australian responses to the increasingly challenging strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe”.

The meeting would work towards “a bilateral road map to strengthen collaboration across defence and security, resilience and climate action, and education and culture”, they said. AFP

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