European Union leaders have rallied behind France in its anger over a multi-billion dollar submarine deal with Australia that was scuppered when Canberra signed up to a trilateral Asia Pacific security pact with the United States and the United Kingdom.
The security pact, known as AUKUS, includes the sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, and has strained relations between western countries ahead of the start of this week’s annual gathering of world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
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Speaking after the closed-door meeting on the sidelines of the assembly, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said “more cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation” was needed to achieve a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific region where China is the major rising power.
The bloc’s foreign ministers “expressed clear solidarity with France,” Borrell said.
“This announcement ran counter to calls for greater cooperation with the European Union in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian earlier on Monday accused the US of betrayal and Australia of back-stabbing.
Le Drian called on Europeans to “think hard” about alliances, and accused US President Joe Biden’s administration of continuing the “unilateralism, unpredictability, brutality and not respecting your partner” of his predecessor Donald Trump.
The US has sought to soothe anger in France, a NATO ally, and Biden is due to speak to French President Emmanuel Macron on the phone in the next few days.
“We are allies, we talk and don’t hide elaborate different strategies. That’s why there is a crisis in confidence,” Le Drian said. “So all that needs clarifications and explanations. It may take time.”
Australia signed the deal to buy French diesel-powered submarines in 2016. The agreement was cancelled when the AUKUS pact gave Australia access to US technology on nuclear-powered vessels.
France has pushed for several years for a European strategy for boosting economic, political and defence ties in the Indo-Pacific, which stretches from India and China to Japan and New Zealand. The EU also announced its plan for the Indo-Pacific last week.
‘America is back?’
Biden is due to address the UN on Tuesday and had been hoping to turn the page on Trump’s turbulent presidency and reassure traditional allies in the face of a rising China.
China, which already has nuclear-powered submarines, has condemned the pact, with President Xi Jinping on Friday warning against “interference from external forces” in the region.
China claims Taiwan as its own, is embroiled in maritime disputes with Japan and claims nearly all of the South China Sea, where it has built artificial islands for military bases. It has rejected competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam and has criticised so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the region by the US navy.
European Council President Charles Michel said that he found it difficult to understand the move by Australia, the UK and the US.
“Why? Because with the new Joe Biden administration, America is back. This was the historic message sent by this new administration and now we have questions. What does it mean – America is back? Is America back in America or somewhere else? We don’t know,” he told reporters in New York.
“We are observing a clear lack of transparency and loyalty.”
US officials said Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, a fluent French speaker who grew up in Paris, sought to contain the fallout from the pact on Friday in a conversation with France’s ambassador in Washington.
The ambassador was later recalled to Paris as a protest. France also recalled its top diplomat in Canberra.
Asked whether a bilateral meeting between Blinken and Le Drian would take place, senior State Department official Erica Barks-Ruggles said that “the schedule will remain dynamic”.