France has accused US President Joe Biden of acting like his predecessor Donald Trump after Paris was pushed aside from a lucrative defence deal that it had signed with Australia.
Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s comments on Thursday came a day after the United States, United Kingdom and Australia announced a security partnership for the Indo-Pacific that will help Australia acquire US nuclear-powered submarines.
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The pact, dubbed AUKUS, is understood to be an attempt to counter China, though the three leaders did not mention Beijing explicitly in their remarks on Wednesday as they revealed the move.
AUKUS means a multibillion-dollar contract Australia had signed in 2016 to buy French diesel-powered submarines will now be scrapped.
Le Drian said he was “angry and bitter” over the move, slamming it as a breach of trust.
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” he told Franceinfo radio. “This isn’t done between allies.”
‘Stab in the back’
Two weeks ago, the Australian defence and foreign ministers had reconfirmed to Paris the 2016 deal with French shipbuilder Naval Group to replace France’s more than two-decades-old Collins submarines.
French President Emmanuel Macron also lauded decades of future cooperation when hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in June.
“It’s a stab in the back. We created a relationship of trust with Australia and that trust has been broken,” Le Drian said.
Asked if Paris had been “duped” by Washington over what Le Drian once called a “contract of the century” for France’s naval yards, the minister replied: “Your analysis of the situation is more or less correct.
“We’ll need clarifications. We have contracts – the Australians need to tell us how they intend to get out of them,” he said.
The European Union’s top diplomat also commented, saying the new pact showed the bloc must develop its own defence and security strategies, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.
“We must survive on our own, as others do,” Josep Borrell said on Thursday as he presented a new EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, talking of the “strategic autonomy” that Macron has previously championed.
Borrell said he was not consulted on Wednesday’s agreement between Canberra, London and Washington.
“I understand the extent to which the French government must be disappointed,” he said.
London defends pact
But UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace stood by the new submarine pact, saying it did not represent a strategic difference between London and Paris.
“The Australians have taken this decision that they want to make a change,” he told the BBC on Thursday.
“We didn’t go fishing for that but as a close ally, when the Australians approached us, of course, we would consider it. I understand France’s frustration about it.”
Ties between Paris and Washington soured during Trump’s presidency, and diplomats say there have been concerns in recent months that Biden is not being forthright with his European allies.
The deal with Australia is likely to further strain Transatlantic ties.
It was hatched against the backdrop of growing concern in Western capitals about China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, where France also has interests, including overseas territories.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Thursday accused the US, Australia and UK of “severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts” with their pact.
“China will closely watch the situation’s development,” he told a regular briefing in Beijing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday sought to play down Chinese fears.
Johnson told parliament the new defence alliance between the UK, US and Australia was “not intended to be adversarial”.
It “will help to safeguard the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific”, he said, adding that the deal reflected “the close relationship that we have with the United States and with Australia, the shared values that we have and the sheer level of trust”.