France Calls U.S.-Australia Submarine Deal a Betrayal
France said it had been betrayed by the U.S. after being pushed out of a multibillion-dollar deal to supply submarines to Australia, in a public rupture between NATO allies that is shaping up to be among the most bitter trans-Atlantic disputes of the Biden administration’s first year.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday called the U.S.-backed deal a “stab in the back.” President Biden on Wednesday announced a new security pact with Australia and the U.K. that would include a long-term agreement to build nuclear submarines for Australia. Australia on Thursday confirmed it was withdrawing from the French contract.
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do,” Mr. Le Drian said. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”
France was so infuriated that it canceled a gala scheduled for Friday evening at its embassy in Washington and on a French ship in Baltimore to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes, when the French navy, fighting on the side of American revolutionary forces, defeated the British navy in Chesapeake Bay.
Chinese officials reacted with alarm to the prospect of a military power in the region equipped with nuclear submarines. Relations between Australia and China have deteriorated in recent years amid a flurry of economic and political disputes.
“The nuclear submarine cooperation between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international nonproliferation efforts,” said Zhao Lijun, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry.
The global fallout from the U.S.-led submarine pact underscores how Western powers are jockeying for influence in Asia-Pacific, both against each other and their common antagonist China. The U.S. and France, two of the world’s largest weapons exporters, secure lucrative military contracts through their security partnerships in the region. The new pact signals that Washington refused to take a back seat to France in arming Australia, long one of the closest U.S. allies.
The trans-Atlantic fight stands out from Mr. Biden’s first months in office, when he worked to dial down tensions with the European Union on issues ranging from trade to climate change where the bloc had clashed with President Trump. It comes just weeks after European capitals criticized Mr. Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which left hundreds of Europeans and their Afghan allies stuck in Kabul.
News of the ruptured contract landed as the EU laid out its plans to deepen its influence in Asia, including a beefed-up security and naval presence designed to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
The new strategy aims to respond to China’s growing assertiveness in the region by working with democratic partners like the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.
In addition to seeking an enhanced naval presence in Asia, the EU is planning to pump new funds into regional projects to provide alternatives to China’s Belt and Road initiative.
As the EU’s premier naval power, France is key to the new strategy. On Thursday, Mr. Le Drian said France’s plans to build a coalition in the region against China, including India and Australia, were shaken by the decision to step away from the contract.
“We established a relation of confidence with Australia. This confidence is betrayed,” he said.
In losing the contract, France ran up against decades of particularly close security cooperation between the U.S., Australia and the U.K. The governments share intelligence under an agreement called Five Eyes that doesn’t include France.
Until now, the U.S. has only shared its nuclear submarine technology with the U.K. Britain deployed its first nuclear submarine 60 years ago and has advanced technological expertise it can bring to the partnership. A U.K. government spokesman said the submarine deal would result in tens of billions of pounds of new investment across the country. Such deals have become far more important for the U.K. since it left the EU last year.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the deal wouldn’t weaken its ties with France.
“Our relationship with France, our military relationship with France is…rock solid,” Mr. Johnson said.
The Australian submarine deal, dubbed the “contract of the century” in French media, was signed in 2016 and worth tens of billions of dollars over the coming decades. The contract called for France to build nonnuclear submarines for Australia and transfer some of that technology. Australian engineers were already working in the shipyards of Cherbourg in the north of France.
Australia began to have second thoughts about the contract in recent months. Nuclear submarines can run for decades without refueling, giving them a much longer range than conventional submarines, which are powered by diesel.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had raised concerns with French President Emmanuel Macron at a dinner in June about whether conventional submarines would be able to address heightened security tensions in the Asia-Pacific region and China’s more assertive military posture. French and Australian foreign and defense ministers met two weeks ago and reaffirmed their defense ties and cooperation.
When Australia selected French military shipbuilder DCNS Group in 2016, building and operating a nuclear-powered submarine wasn’t an option, Mr. Morrison said.
“The decision we have made to not continue with the Attack class submarine and to go down this path is not a change of mind, it’s a change of need,” said Mr. Morrison.
Beijing describes actions that are increasingly troubling to the U.S. and other countries as normal defense of its own territorial integrity. China has boosted investments in its military technology with weaponry like new submarines and set territorial policies like an air exclusion zone that requires foreign aircraft to identify themselves.
Since the Biden administration came into office, the EU and the U.S. have moved to strengthen coordination on the challenges China poses, developing a top-level Transatlantic Dialogue on China and setting up a trade and technology council to help Europe and the U.S. better compete with China in developing and protecting critical and emerging technologies.