By Kevin Rudd.
Scott Morrison’s determination to put political spin over national security substance in welcoming a new era of nuclear submarines (now to be brought to you exclusively from the Anglosphere) has undermined one of our most enduring and important global relationships – namely the French Republic.
While the prime minister’s office would have been delighted with the television images from Washington and London to show the “fella from down under” mixing it with the big guys and being hairy chested about China, no one there seems to have given a passing thought to the cost to Australian interests that will come from Morrison’s cavalier treatment of France.
There are many reasons to question the wisdom of the government’s hurried decision to “go nuclear” on the eve of a federal election – including the accuracy of technical assumptions concerning the noise footprint of different vessels, their surfacing requirements, their levels of stealth, the ability of Australia in the absence of a domestic nuclear industry to build and service nuclear-powered boats, as well as the implications for full inter-operability with the nuclear fleets of the US and the UK for future combined operations in our region.
These have all been ventilated in the public debate as the government’s rolling incompetence on such a critical project over the last eight years has been put under the microscope. But so far there has been little discussion of the impact of France no longer being Australia’s trusted friend and supporter in critical institutions around the world.
Adjusting the needs of our submarine replacement program based on changing strategic circumstances or critical technical advice is one thing. But doing it without even the most basic of courtesies to the French is another thing altogether.
At the very least, and if for no other reason than to save the Australian taxpayer the billions of dollars already spent (not to mention the lengthy court case that may now ensue if Australia is sued for damages by the French Naval Group), Morrison could have invited France to bid for a new tender, or to continue to provide the hulls while the Americans provided the propulsion for the replacement nuclear-powered boats.
The French have been building nuclear-powered boats for decades.
If, as Morrison would like us to believe, his meeting with Joe Biden in Cornwall in June was widened to include Boris Johnson for the purpose of inking this deal, why did he not advise the French when he visited Paris just a few days later?
If it is has only come about more recently, how could he have allowed Marise Payne and Peter Dutton to underline the importance of the submarine deal to the French just three weeks before the cancellation of the contract?
But, most egregiously, how could he have allowed the French to learn of this via media reports before a call from The Lodge?
For these reasons, it is understandable that France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, described the move as “a stab in the back”. Had this happened to Australia, we would have reacted in the same way because we would have felt betrayed by a friend.
It might be easy to dismiss the French reaction as diplomatic theatre. But France has now withdrawn its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington.
This is the first time the French have withdrawn their ambassador from the US since they established relations amid the American revolutionary war. Even in the height of their disagreement with Washington over the Iraq war, they did not take this step. Nor did relations between Canberra and Paris sink this low when we took them to the international court of justice over their nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Paris has a long memory.
Now Morrison’s botched diplomacy has reverberated right across the Atlantic, fracturing relations between the US, the UK and France, and undermining western solidarity on the overall challenge of China’s rise. All because Morrison wanted to deliver a huge political agenda shift back in Australia where he is now lagging badly in the polls because of his other major botch job: vaccines, quarantine and the pandemic.
For a middle power like Australia, being so casually prepared to destroy our relationship with France runs the risk of real long-term consequences. As a G7 and G20 economy, a permanent member of the security council, a key member of Nato, one of the two key decision makers within the EU, and a Pacific power at that, France has a big global and regional footprint.
That’s why in 2012 as foreign minister, I negotiated a new joint strategic partnership with France which I signed with my French counterpart in Paris. That agreement covers collaboration across the breadth of foreign and defence policy, trade, investment, technology, international economic policy and climate. Malcolm Turnbull doubled down on that strategic partnership in 2017 before the final submarine deal was even done.
So what could ensue? First, the EU will make decisions after the Glasgow summit on climate change whether to impose “border adjustment” measures – tariffs – against those countries dragging the chain on their national contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.
That means a tax on Australian exports. And which way will Paris now go on that one?
Second, Australia has been frantically seeking to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU like Canada’s. What are the prospects now of Paris accepting the demands of Australian farmers to have greater access to the European market given France’s historical support for the common agricultural policy?
Third, what about Australia’s interests in the UN and the G7 where France through the global Francophone community carries enormous influence and can therefore frustrate any future Australian multilateral initiative or Australian candidature.
Beyond all this, the horrifying message for our allies, friends and partners around the world is that our word now counts for nothing; that we shouldn’t be trusted; and that ultimately Australia refuses to move beyond the narrow cocoon of the Anglosphere in augmenting its foreign policy and national security interests – precisely at a time when fundamental shifts in the global and regional balance of power are unfolding beneath our feet.
Published 22 September 2021 in The Guardian.
Photograph: Stephen Yang/Reuters