As NATO beefs up, France and Australia bury the hatchet

By Jan van der Made - RFI
Australia REUTERSJason Reed
JUL 1, 2022 LISTEN
REUTERS/Jason Reed

France and Australia are mending their differences following what some regard as their deepest diplomatic rift since the two countries established ties. A common history and a mutual enemy has helped the allies overcome a submarine deal gone wrong.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese arrives in Paris Friday where he will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron. A day earlier, Albanese was in Madrid as a guest of NATO.

The military alliance added two members, Finland and Sweden, and concluded its watershed three-day summit with the publication of its 2022 Strategic Concept which, for the first time, singled out China as a priority for the next decade.

The document warns against China's "stated ambitions and coercive policies", which it said challenged NATO's "interests, security and values".

It also worries about Beijing's increased "malicious cyber operations" and deepening strategic partnership with Russia.

After presenting the Strategic Concept, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said:  “China is substantially building up its military forces, including nuclear weapons, bullying its neighbours, threatening Taiwan ... monitoring and controlling its own citizens through advanced technology, and spreading Russian lies and disinformation.”

While clarifying that China was "not our adversary", Stoltenberg said the alliance needed to be "clear-eyed about the serious challenges" the country represented.

Sub-level relations

NATO's sentiments on China are shared by Australia. But Canberra, under former prime minister Scott Morrison, prioritised a closer strategic relationship with NATO members Britain and the US with the creation of AUKUS in September 2021.

This was at the expense of a billion-dollar submarine deal with France, which was dumped, causing a rift between the NATO partners.

Ambassadors were recalled, harsh words exchanged, but in the end it didn't seem to matter that much.

After Albanese won the elections in May, he formed a new government and the air cleared quickly. "We do need to reset, we've already had very constructive discussions," Albanese told ABC television in an interview last week.

Just after the elections, Australia had agreed to pay the French shipbuilder Naval Group, which was duped by the cancellation of the submarine deal, a sum of €555 million in compensation.

"France, of course, is central to power in Europe, but it's also a key power in the Pacific, in our own region as well ... the visit is a very concrete sign of the repair that's been done already," Albanese added.

'Enhanced partnership'

Submarine incident aside, France and Australia have always been on good terms.

Diplomatic ties were established in 1842, the same year the UK, then the dominant superpower of the time, started its "Opium Wars" against the Chinese empire, laying the roots for many of the tensions that exist in the region today. 

France and Australia worked together in the two world wars, and were on the same side during the Cold War that followed.

The close bond resulted in 2017 in the Joint statement of "Enhanced strategic partnership between Australia and France", which involved a wide range of joint projects involving defence, economy, infrastructure and energy.

Additional incentive for good ties today is the growing concern about the Indo-Pacific region, where both Australia and France (through its overseas territories New Caledonia and French Polynesia) have strategic and commercial interests.

There they also face a common foe: the People's Republic of China and its growing influence in the region.

During a 2018 visit by Macron, the expanding relationship was summarised in a "vision statement" that made a point of mentioning France's ill-fated involvement in Australia's "Future Submarine Project".

Albanese's visit to see Macron on Friday shows relations are getting back to normal again.

"France does maintain a military presence in the region," Carlyle A Thayer, an emeritus professor with the Australian Defence Force Academy, told RFI.

"The largest maritime boundary that Australia has is with the French possessions in the Pacific.

"And if we turn the clock back and forget all about the cancellation of the submarine deal, the fact that it was given in the first place was the culmination of a convergence with France reasserting its presence," he says.

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