Le Monde: Canberra’s decision on submarines deepens strategic tensions in Southeast Asia

Written by Kevin Rudd.

It is unusual for a former prime minister of a country to criticise the decisions of a successor prime minster in the opinion pages of a foreign newspaper. While I have long-been fiercely critical of the current conservative government of Australia in our domestic political debate on the overall direction of our country’s foreign policy, in the years since I left office, I have rarely put pen to paper to ventilate such criticism abroad. But given the Australian government’s gross mishandling of its submarine replacement project with France, as well as the importance I attach to Canberra’s strategic relationship with Paris, I believe I have a responsibility as a former prime minister to make plain my own perspective on this most recent and extraordinary foreign policy debacle by the current Australian government.

I believe the Morrison Government’s decision is deeply flawed in a number of fundamental respects. It violates the spirit and letter of the Australia-France strategic framework of 2012 and later enhanced by prime minister Turnbull in 2017. It fails the basic contractual obligation of Australia to consult with the French Naval Group if Australia decided to radically change the tender specification from 12 conventional submarines to 8 nuclear-powered ones. It is wrong that Australia has not offered France the opportunity to re-tender (in part or in whole) for these nuclear boats, despite the fact that France has long-standing experience in making them. Beyond these basic beaches, Morrison also failed to adhere to basic diplomatic protocols in not officially notifying the French government of its unilateral decision prior to the public announcement of the cancellation of the contract. And finally, there is Canberra’s failure to comprehend the repercussions of this decision for France itself – and for broader international solidarity in framing a coordinated response to China’s rise.

Australia’s relationship with France has a long and intimate history. Nearly 50,000 of our sons lie buried in French soil in the defence of France and Belgium in the killing fields of the First World War. These were military theatres in which nearly a quarter of a million Australians had served. Indeed, in 1914, this represented fully 5% of our entire national population. We were also allies together in the Second World War against fascist Germany – including military campaigns against the Vichy in both the Pacific and in the Middle East. My own father, for example, fought with the Free French in the Syrian campaign of 1941. While bilateral relations became deeply strained over French nuclear testing in the South Pacific between the 1960’s and 1990’s, once Paris conducted its last test, relations rapidly normalised. Since then, Australia has welcomed France’s long-standing political presence in the Pacific in New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna as stabilising in the wider region. Just as we have valued France’s critical role in the EU, NATO, G7, G20, the UN – and the wider Francophone world.

For these reasons, as prime minister, and foreign minister of Australia, I sought to put our relations with France on a new institutional footing. The then French Foreign Minister, Allain Juppé, and I negotiated the first comprehensive bilateral strategic framework for the relationship which we signed together at the Quai D’Orsay in January 2012. This was entitled the “Joint Statement of Strategic Partnership between France and Australia” and covered the entire field: political, defence, security, economic, energy, transport, education, science, technology, science, environmental, climate change, development assistance and cultural cooperation. It also covered strategic collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region well before other countries (i.e. the United States) believe they had invented the term. This agreement followed an earlier treaty I had negotiated as prime minister with the European Union providing a parallel framework for future global collaboration with Brussels. It was part of a broader vision for Australia, as a member of the G20 and as a middle power with global responsibilities where our relationship with France would become more important in the future, not less.

The point is that the Australia-France submarine contract is not just a commercial agreement. It occurs within this wider official framework. Indeed, it became the ballast of the relationship we had envisaged together back in 2012. The problem for Morrison is that his unilateral decision of 17 September to cancel the submarine project violates both the spirit and, one reading, the letter of our Joint Declaration. Against this background, French Foreign Minister Le Drian is right when he describes Morrison’s action as “a stab in the back”.

Second, while I am not privy to the detail of the contractual agreement between France’s Naval Group and the Australian Department of Defence, it strikes me as a basic protocol that if one of the contracting parties (in this case Australia) was to fundamentally change the project specifications (i.e. from conventional to nuclear-powered subs), it would first require that party to at least notify the other party. To do otherwise would be tantamount to deceptive and misleading conduct. But it seems that the Morrison Government failed to inform Naval in advance.

This brings us to the third error on the part of the Morrison Government. If Morrison had in fact changed course from conventional to nuclear-powered submarines for good technical reasons, then why wouldn’t he re-open competitive tenders for bids from France, the UK and the United States? All three have nuclear-powered boats. All three know how to manufacture them and maintain them. Instead, Morrison decided to limit bids to the Anglosphere alone. This makes no sense in terms of getting the best value for money for the Australian taxpayer. Nor is it fair to our French strategic partners.

I have already referred to Morrison’s failure to adhere to basic diplomatic protocols in the manner in which the French government was informed of his submarine about face. Such a failure is unacceptable between adversaries let alone between allies. But beyond this, it has been Morrison’s failure to understand the wider foreign policy repercussions of his decision that is perhaps the most appalling of all. It has affected European solidarity in forming and consolidating a common strategy for dealing with the impact of China’s global and regional rise. On the eve of the next Quad Summit in Washington, it has rekindled doubts among the other members of the Quad that there is now an inner group of the US and Australia (and now prospectively the UK) and an outer group of India and Japan – doubts already debated in Delhi following America’s unceremonious exit from Afghanistan which delivered a significant strategic win to India’s principal strategic adversary Pakistan. Third, Morrison’s decision has further polarised South East Asian strategic positions on China and the United States where China has already made considerable economic and foreign policy gains. And finally, it lends grist to the mill in China’s global propaganda apparatus that the public political theatre of the submarine announcement with the US and the UK is all about one single strategic objective: containment.

As a former prime minister, I deeply regret the way this decision has been handled by the current Australian government. The cavalier manner in which it has been done does not represent the views of the vast majority of Australians towards France. There may be important strategic or technical reasons to change course with the type of submarines that Australia now needs to build. But none of these justify the treatment of France in this way. These are major matters of state. And they will be deliberated on by the Australian people soberly during our upcoming national elections.

Article originally published in French in Le Monde on 22 September 2021.

Picture: Adam Taylor / PMO