UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted on the “very friendly relationship” between France and the UK as the French Defence Minister called off talks with her British counterpart amid a row over Australia’s new Aukus submarine deal.
On September 15, Australia signed the trilateral Aukus defence pact with the UK and the US, enabling its government to build nuclear-powered submarines using British and American technology.
By entering into this alliance, Australia pulled out of a €56 billion (£48 billion) contract for 12 conventional diesel submarines signed with France in 2016.
This contract had already hit several snags, with an initial design plan being rejected by Australia as being too expensive.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the Aukus pact as a “stab in the back,” telling France 2 that there had been "lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt" over the deal.
President Emmanuel Macron then chose to withdraw his ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.
UK sources yesterday (September 19) remained hopeful that a meeting between Defence Ministers Florence Parly and Ben Wallace would go ahead.
However, by the evening the event’s co-chair, former UK national security adviser Lord Ricketts, had confirmed that the two days of talks had been “postponed to a later date.”
Mr Johnson commented that France need not “worry” about the Aukus alliance as he travelled to New York to take part in the UN General Assembly.
“We are very, very proud of our relationship with France and it is of huge importance to this country,” he said.
“It is a very friendly relationship - an entente cordiale - that goes back a century or more and is absolutely vital for us.”
"Aukus is not in any way meant to be zero-sum, it's not meant to be exclusionary. It's not something that anybody needs to worry about and particularly not our French friends.
“This is something that goes very, very deep. Our love of France, our admiration of France is ineradicable.”
Mr Johnson’s familial links to France are strong, his father Stanley – who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum – having recently applied for French citizenship.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly told the BBC that “all bilateral agreements go through periods of tension,” but that he had “absolutely no doubt that ultimately our relationship with France will endure.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also defended the Aukus pact, denying the accusations of “lying and duplicity.”
"Ultimately, this was a decision about whether the submarines that were being built, at great cost to the Australian taxpayer, were going to be able to do a job that we needed it to do when they went into service and our strategic judgement based on the best possible of intelligence and defence advice was that it would not,” he said.
The Aukus agreement is widely believed to be an effort to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
It means that Australia will become the seventh country in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines.