France remains a “vital partner” to the United States on many issues, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, as he sought to allay Paris’s anger at a security partnership between the US, the United Kingdom and Australia that did not include the European Union country.
At a joint news conference with top US and Australian officials on Thursday, Blinken said the US is looking to “find every opportunity” to deepen cooperation with France, including in the Indo-Pacific region.
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It came a day after the announcement of a trilateral security alliance, dubbed “AUKUS”, that will see the US and the UK help produce nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian military.
“We strongly, strongly welcome European countries playing an important role in the Indo-Pacific,” Blinken said. “We look forward to continued close cooperation with NATO, with the EU and others in this endeavor.”
The top US diplomat stressed the importance of the alliance between the US and France.
“France, in particular, is a vital partner on this and on so many other things – stretching back a long, long time, but also stretching forward into the future,” he said.
The new partnership left France, which had its own submarines deal with Australia, fuming.
On Thursday, Australian Prime Scott Morrison confirmed halting the 2016 deal to buy diesel-powered submarines designed by the French firm Naval Group, saying that conventional submarines have become “unsuited” to the country’s operational needs because of “accelerating changes to regional security”.
He said the decision was not taken lightly. “As like-minded liberal democracies, Australia and France share a common commitment to the rules-based global order that has delivered stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific,” Morrison added.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defence Minister Florence Parly said in a joint statement that Australia’s decision “heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy”.
Paris, however, directed the bulk of its fury at Washington.
“The American decision, which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, be it over our values or respect for a multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret,” the statement said.
Le Drian later likened the Biden administration to its Donald Trump-led predecessor. “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.”
On Thursday, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said it was military officials who advised the government to seek nuclear-powered submarines for long-term capabilities.
“In the end, the decision that we have made is based on what is in the best interest of our national security and the prevailing security and peace within the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Pact not aimed at China, US says
China also denounced AUKUS, which appears to be seeking to counter Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The nuclear submarine cooperation between the US, the UK and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a news conference on Thursday, calling the partnership “extremely irresponsible”.
US, UK and Australian leaders have stressed that the submarines will be powered by nuclear power, not carrying nuclear weapons. Australia is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
At the US-Australian joint news conference on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reiterated that the new security partnership aimed to increase cooperation between the three countries.
“On the issue of China, let me just emphasise upfront that this agreement, this relationship is not aimed at anything or anyone,” Austin said.
For his part, Dutton rejected the Chinese criticism. “This is not the first time to see different outbursts from China in terms of Australia’s position,” he said. “We are a proud democracy in our region. We stand with our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific to ensure enduring peace, and this collaboration makes it a safer region.”
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that she and Dutton discussed competition with China in talks with their US counterparts.
“This does not mean that there are not constructive areas for engagement with China,” Payne said. “Australia continues to seek dialogue with China without pre-conditions.”