Even the French have “moved on” from the subs, according to Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton, speaking on the ABC’s 7.30 program recently. Except that there’s nothing much to suggest that the French actually have.
France’s leading Sunday newspaper reported on 20 February that, “relations between France and Australia have not improved since the conclusion of the famous (AUKUS) pact last year”. Quoted, a French presidential spokesperson said: “In substance, we are still waiting for details on the partnership that the Australians want to maintain with us.”
Five months after the Morrison government scrapped the $90 billion French submarine deal in favour of American nuclear-powered boats, “no serious proposal from them (the Australian government) has been made,” the Elysée spokesperson told Le Journal du Dimanche.
Publication of the article has coincided with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s visit to Paris today for an Indo-Pacific Ministerial forum involving more than 30 European and Indo-Pacific Foreign Ministers. At the time of writing, no meeting between Minister Payne and her French counterpart, Jean Yves Le Drian, had been scheduled.
It is not, in fact, as Dutton suggested, the Franco-Australian but the Franco-American relationship that has ‘moved on’ — that has, “found its feet again”, to quote a Le Monde editorial about French president Emmanuel Macron’s contact with US president Joe Biden over Ukraine in recent weeks.
And if the US and France have ‘moved on’, it’s at least in part because the Americans have adopted a resolutely conciliatory approach. In a live interview on prime-time French television shortly after the AUKUS announcement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged (speaking in French) an error of appreciation. “We could have, and we should have,” he said, “done better in terms of communication.” President Biden struck a similar tone seated with Macron in the margins of the last G20 meeting. “Clumsy”, was the treatment meted out to France, he said, with “not … a lot of grace”.
So, unlike the Prime Minister of Australia, the de facto leader of the Western world, sought to make honourable amends by publicly regretting a patent lack of consultation with the French.
But not only not the words, not the actions, either. Alongside ‘no serious Australian proposal’, the US has compromised by at least recognising that a strong European defence posture need not be a threat to US dominance — may even complement it — and by pledging to look at new ways of acting in a more co-ordinated manner in the Indo-Pacific.
On that last point, a more ambitious and creative Australia, might have sought to play a brokering role in a new era of Indo-Pacific co-ordination, an alliance of democracies in the face of autocracy. A beachhead of US support, Australia has a special knowledge of the Indo-Pacific, as do the Europeans for varying reasons of history and culture: the Dutch of Indonesia; the French of Laos and Cambodia; the British of Malaysia and so on.
Instead, we’ve done our bit to disaggregate the Western alliance, creating confusion among allies while working as if seeking to cast ourselves to the geopolitical sidelines in our own region.
Two major French dailies (including Le Monde) have recently drawn on the US formula in 2003, when France, Germany and Russia refused to back the American invasion of Iraq. Accredited to former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, the maxim was that the US would, “Punish France, ignore Germany and pardon Russia.” Macron in the face of the the subs fracas and AUKUS would: “Punish the UK, pardon the US and ignore Australia”.
Macron, who said Morrison lied to him about the subs deal — which the Prime Minister flatly denied — is favourite to win the French presidential election in April. If he doesn’t, the leading opposition candidates come from either a more obviously nationalist mainstream right, or what might be called, a hard-line Trumpian populist-nationalist right. Their indignity about both subs and AUKUS runs at least as deep as Macron’s.
We’re still a long way off “moving on” from the subs.