“You complain about the bad food in a restaurant to the manager and the chef, not the dishwasher,” a French official responded when asked why his country’s ambassador to London was not being recalled – unlike the ones to the US and Australia – after the Aukus agreement.
Britain has yet to feel the full force of French fury after the nuclear submarine deal in which Paris has lost out significantly to the US and UK. Perfidious Albion has been accused of the “usual opportunism”, of being the “fifth wheel on the cart”. But France’s aim, it appears, is to show that Boris Johnson and his government are such minor players in what has unfolded that they do not even deserve proper retribution. The invective of Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, that “there has been a lie, there has been duplicity, there has been a major breach of trust, there has been contempt, so things are not right between us”, was aimed mainly at Washington and Canberra.
There is a justifiable reason behind that. The building of the nuclear submarine fleet for Australia could not have happened had the US not agreed to technology transfer. The UK’s role, mainly, has been that of a facilitator in the transaction.
France called off this week’s meeting between the defence ministers of both countries, Florence Parly and Ben Wallace, but the meeting is said to have been postponed rather than cancelled and Franco-British military cooperation is due to continue.
Publicly, at least, the British have been careful not to crow about the submarine affair. Wallace has said he fully sympathises with French frustration at what has happened. Boris Johnson, flying off to New York for the UN General Assembly, declared that, “our love of France is ineradicable. Aukus is not something that anybody needs to worry about and particularly not our French friends.”
Others are more directly in the French firing line for now. There have been angry claims of deceit against the Australians who signed an agreement in 2016 for the French to build A$90bn of diesel powered submarines and then reneged on it. In June, when hosted by Emmanuel Macron in Paris, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, said he looked forward to similar deals. Two weeks ago, the Australian foreign and defence ministers issued a statement confirming the submarine agreement was going ahead.
How long the supposed subterfuge has been going on for is disputed. Jean-Pierre Thebault, the French ambassador to Australia, said: “This plot was in the making for 18 months, at the same time while we were engaged in making the programme. There was a complete other project.” However, in London, both Ben Wallace and the national security advisor, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, said the Ukas and nuclear submarine deal was first raised in March, and then proceeded with at great speed.
Either way, the French government says that it did not discover what was happening until an hour before the announcement of the agreement was made by Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison. Even this was “thanks to the press, so you can imagine our anger; we felt fooled”, said Thebault.
This raises obvious questions about the information gathering ability of the French diplomatic and intelligence services. Macron could not have been happy with Quai d’Orsay and the DGSC, which may partly explain his level of anger.
Morrison said he had raised “issues” with the French contract, which had indeed been troubled, many months ago. That is not quite the same as telling them Australia had embarked on a different project. Johnson also insisted that he had told Macron about Aukas the night before the public announcement.
One route for any French reprisal against Australia would be the European Union’s trade negotiations with Australia. Eleven rounds of talks have been held already but Clement Beaune, the French European affairs minister, declared they can hardly go ahead now. “It is unthinkable to move forward on trade negotiations as if nothing had happened with a country we no longer trust,” he told the website Politico.
The French are no strangers to killing off trade deals when it does not suit their interests, however. In 2016, Francois Hollande sunk the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, while Macron has shown antipathy towards the Mercosar Agreement, with Latin American states under negotiations.
But it is the US administration that has caused the most bemusement to the French, and also the European Union, which had just unveiled its own Indo-Pacific strategy. One reason for this was the expectation that after the turbulent and toxic years of Donald Trump, the multilateralism Joe Biden promised would mean a return to trust and teamwork with allies.
Biden’s chaotic withdrawl from Afghanistan, with little consultation with allies, caused deep concern, and the submarine plot has made many think that not all that much has changed since the Trump years. Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, was among those who felt let down. His bitter conclusion: “The United States deliberately trampled the important interests of an ally. They might have invited France to join the project or offered some form of compensation. They couldn’t be bothered.”
The Americans, unlike the British, seemed to have been unconcerned about, or even unaware of, hurt French feelings. Appearing at Chatham House in London, Democrat House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, could see little problematic about what had happened. US officials claimed that the French had been kept fully informed about Aukus, but were then forced to backtrack. Some French officials claimed that the Biden administration had explicitly denied that any such plan was being considered.
There is, of course, another country without which none of this would have been possible. The launch of Aukus by the US, UK and Australia took place with the studious avoidance of mentioning China. Senior British officials briefing the media even maintained that China was not a factor in Australia acquiring a nuclear powered submarine fleet. But China’s unrelentingly aggressive stance over ownership of mineral rich disputed waters, crackdown on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, threats to invade Taiwan and any questioning of its role in the coronavirus pandemic is causing alarm.
It is China with its naval power, growing at the rate of the entire French navy every four years, with more vessels than the US navy, which has driven states to urgently review their defences.
Australia calling for an independent investigation into origins of Covid led to Beijing imposing punitive tariffs on Australian imports. Australian criticism of Chinese actions in Hong Kong and against the Uyghurs was followed by cyber-attacks by hackers linked to Beijing.
So Australia, whose biggest trading partner remains China, has embarked on acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine fleet; the US, Japan, Australia and India have separately restarted the Malabar naval exercises; Japan has urged European states to take a stand against Chinese aggression; and Taiwan is seeking further America military assistance.
The Indo-Pacific is fast becoming a region of competition and confrontation. The accusations and recriminations over the submarine programme is unlikely to be the last source of controversy in this new and increasingly volatile arena.
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