The sundering of the relationship between Australia and France over the new trilateral security relationship between Canberra, Washington and London and, more importantly, the rescinding of the submarine contract with Australia, was playing on President Emmanuel Macron’s mind at the G20 Summit in Rome.
Did he think he had been lied to by the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison about the intended scrapping of the Franco-Australian submarine deal with the creation of AUKUS? “I don’t think, I know,” came the definitive answer.
The response from Morrison was one of shameless dissembling. Making sure that Australian audiences and news waves would only pick up select gobbets, he told the media that the French president had attacked Australia. He said he was concerned about “the statements that were made questioning Australia’s integrity and the slurs that have been placed on Australia”. Further, he said, he was “not going to cop sledging at Australia”.
A full reading of Macron’s words in the brief encounter suggests that didn’t happen. He respected “sovereign choices” but said it was vital to “respect allies and partners.” It was the conduct of Australia’s government Macron had issues with.
Morrison’s defence confused the issue of having difficulties with the contractual relationship with France to build 12 diesel electric submarines with his decision to announce the intended divorce.
Morrison believed that Macron must have known something when they met in June because he had “made it very clear that a conventional diesel-powered submarine was not going to meet Australia’s strategic requirements”.
He did, however, say that alternatives were not discussed, they being “in confidence”.
Morrison went on endlessly about the “strategic environment” having changed. He also said there were issues specific to the contract with the French defence firm Naval, including “following through with commitments on Australian industry content”. There were issues with delays; issues with cost.
Morrison’s mendacity is also pronounced in how he justified pursuing the nuclear submarine option with the United States.
With eyes fastened on Washington’s formidable nuclear hardware, Morrison said Washington and Canberra were dealing with “the nuclear stewardship issues”. He said he was also “working through in good faith” the problems with the French Naval contract.
In Morrison’s world of marketing, dissatisfaction can be retooled and packaged as separation and nullification.
What Macron thought he heard, or understood, is less relevant than what Morrison thought he said.
The United States has also done its fair share of dissimulative manoeuvring. In his meeting with Macron at the Villa Bonaparte in Rome on October 29, President Joe Biden was buttery. France, he assured the French President, was “the reason, in part, why we became an independent country”.
Asked whether the relationship between France and the US had been “repaired”, Biden was apologetic: “What we did was ‘clumsy’. It was not done with a lot of grace … I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the [French-Australian submarine] deal was not going through. I, honest to God, did not know you had not been.”
What then, had Morrison told Biden he was doing about the French and ending the conventional submarine affair?
The Australian, equipped with a confidential document detailing a communications timeline on the new submarine nuclear announcement, suggested Biden’s full grasp of the verity should be questioned.
The 15-page document, approved by Biden’s National Security Council, points out that France would only be informed of the new arrangements on September 16. Time was also spent pondering how Australia might best calm an indignant France. There was also concern about how other powers might react.
Little consideration was given to the possibility that any anger might be directed against the US, least of all from France.
The Morrison government also used the well worn practice of selective leaking to bolster its quicksand position.
A prodding text from Macron to Morrison, sent two days prior to the AUKUS announcement and the cancellation of the contract, involved a query as to whether good or bad news could be expected about the French submarines.
The insinuation is that Macron had an inkling that something was afoot from the Australian side — hardly counting as being informed. Morrison’s response is not noted. The Elysée has also denied suggestions that Canberra made several warning efforts regarding the AUKUS announcement.
An Elysée official said: “Disclosing a text message exchange between heads of state or government is a pretty crude and unconventional tactic”. It may be crude, but it is an apt summation of the Prime Minister’s view of diplomacy.
[Dr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University in Melbourne. He can be emailed at email@example.com]