France, Australia to hasten comeback from submarines row in Paris

Published : 30 Jan 2023 07:46 PM

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

A bitter row erupted in September 2021 when Australia's previous prime minister Scott Morrison abruptly tore up a 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 an EU-Australia trade agreement, but the two sides have begun to make up since Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took power in Canberra, vowing to fix links with Paris.

In November, French President Emmanuel Macron said his country's submarine offer "remains on the table", a day after meeting with Albanese at a G20 summit in Indonesia.

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

Albanese had already in July hailed a new start in ties during a visit to Paris, stressing he would act with "trust, respect and honesty" in his dealings with 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 Albanese's July trip, foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said.

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, and observers say better relations with Canberra would help it assert influence there. But, they said, it is uncertain how far 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".

Macron has said that France could act as a "balancing power" between Beijing and Washington in the region, although experts say the distance to mainland France and a relatively weak military presence will limit any French designs there.

Wong and Marles said in a joint statement ahead of the visit that discussions "will develop and align French and Australian responses to the increasingly challenging strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe", using another term for the Asia-Pacific region.

The meeting would work towards "a bilateral roadmap to strengthen collaboration across defence and security, resilience and climate action, and education and culture", they said.