Analysis: France returns its ambassador to Australia, but years of antagonism lie ahead

Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan has in recent days felt the cold wind in the relationship between his country and France. It’s something that could become the new normal for years to come.

© AP

France’s and the US’s high-level delegations in talks to fix the AUKUS implications on the two sides’ relations

– AP

Tehan was spurned this week in Europe, where talks over the EU-Australia free trade agreement were postponed, and a meeting with his French counterpart cancelled.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was treated to a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The EU’s cool response reflected France’s fury over snubbing a $ 90-bln deal with French company Naval Group to build diesel-propelled submarines in favour of a new geostrategic partnership, known as AUKUS, with the US and the UK. The fierce squabble resulted in Paris recalling its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra.

While the French ambassador returned to Washington after a phone conversation between Macron and President Joe Biden, the French president as recently as last week did not return calls from Scott Morrison, Australia’s PM.

Despite the spat, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers on Wednesday his country will send its envoy back to Canberra “to redefine the terms of our relations for the future.”

“I think France wants to move forward, following Paris’ angry response. Although relations with the Morrison government are at a record low, some conversation needs to restart,” said Philippe Le Corre, a non-resident senior fellow in Europe and Asia Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace centre.

The urgency to move forward and contain the crisis also is in Macron’s own interest.

Macron’s mind is firmly on the French elections next spring, and he feels he must demonstrate his capacity to defend France’s interests

Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group

The AUKUS fallout is expected to shape the national conversation on France’s position in the western alliance ahead of the upcoming 10 April presidential elections. President Macron certainly will be eager to position himself as the champion of Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ policy and the mastermind of the EU approach in the Indo-Pacific after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure.

“President Macron’s mind is firmly on the French elections next spring, and he feels he must demonstrate his capacity to defend France’s interests and the nation’s prestige in the global community,” said Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, a think tank based in London.

“At the same time, his efforts to lead a push towards European strategic autonomy are struggling to gain traction, not least in part because of the sense among some other member states that his motivations are fundamentally self-interested,” she added.

“Australia’s decision to abandon the submarine partnership with France has clearly wounded the French president and will leave scars that may bear out in other choices Macron will seek to advance within the European Union.”

The French view on Australia dominated the trajectory of the protracted trade deal negotiations, riddled with cancellations and postponement of pre-scheduled high-level meetings, and with Tehan failing to make any progress during this week’s visit.

Although motivations behind the decision to send the ambassador back indicate tempers in Paris have cooled, it could also mark the beginning of a longer-term recalculation of the country’s alliances in the Indo-Pacific.

© Provided by The Independent US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) attends a meeting with French European and Foreign Affairs Minister in Paris on October 5, 2021 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“It would’ve been impossible not to have an ambassador in Canberra. France wanted to show its anger and that the relationship will be affected for a long time, but it will maintain a French presence in order to defend our interests,” Pascal Boniface, founding director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said.

France has multiple interests in the region. The country has a significant maritime presence, with territories sprawling very close to the Australian continent, a 1.6 million population and around 7,000 troops.

Tellingly, the announcement of Aukus was described by the French Foreign Minister as “brutal” and “unpredictable.”. Boniface said these comments essentially reflect the sentiment that “France has been betrayed.”

Australia, on the other hand, defends the decision by implying that it serves its national interest. The deal to supply Canberra with eight nuclear-powered submarines will elevate Canberra’s status among great military powers.

Military specialists believe that acquiring nuclear submarines is the most significant strategic shift for Australia in the last 50 years. It will also provide Canberra with a protective umbrella against China’s adventures and upgrade its position in the US alliance system.

China’s rise has shifted the economic and geostrategic centre of gravity of the transatlantic to the Indo-pacific, which resulted in Australia positioning itself at the heart of the western strategy to curb Beijing ambitions.

For that reason, and many others, France has also sought closer ties with Australia.

In 2018, France was the first in the EU to launch its Indo-Pacific strategy. It was strikingly ironic that Macron himself announced the new strategy on a warship at Sydney’s Garden Military base.

France never had the will nor the means to become the lead country to confront China. On the contrary, it is trying to prevent confrontation

Marc Julienne, the head of China research at the French Institute of International Relations

“The strategic partnership with [Australia] is based on a deep security and defence cooperation effort,” the French government’s 2021 update on the strategy released in August said.

Analysts suggest that the French disappointment can be traced to Paris’s previously prevailing complacency about its strategic partnership with Australia. Throughout the past five years, Paris was “naive” to think it could replace the US and the UK as Australia’s main partner in countering China, as one Australian source put it.

This partly explains France’s shock at Australia’s failure to respect its interests and vision for the Indo-Pacific.

Since the release of its regional strategy, France has been the EU’s most active supporter of the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China’s expanding military and economic power.

On Wednesday, a group of French senators arrived in Taiwan for a five-day visit following a large Chinese incursion with fighter jets near the self-ruled democratic island. Beijing warned the trip would hurt its ties with France.

© Provided by The Independent Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks to the former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott during their meeting in Taipei (REUTERS)

A day later, Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott arrived in Taipei to help end its “international isolation” and offered his support to the government in the face of China’s “challenges.”

Although the two sides see eye to eye on the final outcome, Paris has always maintained a different view on dealing with China’s preponderance.

Primarily, politicians and policymakers in Paris see Washington’s maximalist approach as dangerous and could destabilise the region. They advocate a calmer policy of cooperation and dialogue, a view many other European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, see compelling.

The Aukus accord meant that Australia may have sidelined the European ‘cooperative’ view favouring the more US-led confrontational posture.

“France never had the will nor the means to become the lead country to confront China. On the contrary, it is trying to prevent confrontation,” Marc Julienne, the head of China research at the French Institute of International Relations, told The Independent.

“France is an Indo-Pacific nation and has interests in the region, so it needs to cooperate with all stakeholders, including Australia and the US,” he added.

But reaching the same level of cooperation previously shackled Australia and the US with the EU will likely take time.

President Biden has been hijacked by his Asia team

Philippe Le Corre, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

“I don’t expect the relations to normalise for some time unless Canberra has something to offer. The massive fallout behind Aukus will leave long-term scars in continental Europe,” Le Corre told The Independent.

In a bruising move for the Europeans, Biden, Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed their secretly negotiated deal on the very same day the EU launched its Indo-Pacific strategy. Few in Europe believe this was an accident.

Many believe the tripartite’s handling of the plight has sent the wrong message to the EU and fuelled the disapproval of the US simmering below the surface in the European capitals since the Trump era.

“This was new evidence that we could not trust the US. When their interests are at stake, there are no more allies. On the long trend, it is a new incitement to work on European strategic autonomy,” Boniface stressed.

© Provided by The Independent The Aukus alliance was announced in a joint virtual press conference (AFP via Getty Images)

“Aukus is vastly in contradiction with Biden’s repeated commitment over getting ‘like-minded countries’ together over the China issue. He has been hijacked by his Asia team,” Le Corre noted.

But others argue that the US, the UK, and Australia may have had no option but to dash ahead with the agreement.

“Ultimately, the G7 summit made clear that all major democracies, including France, recognise the urgency to keep their eyes on the prize about the challenges posed by authoritarian states including China,” Gaston observed.

”With the strategic importance of Australia for other Western allies in the Indo-Pacific region, there was little choice but to pursue a rapprochement and find a way to move forward,” she added.

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