American officials are defending a new deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines after French officials expressed frustration over the agreement’s effect on an existing multibillion-dollar defense deal.
The effort to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines – a major step toward countering China as President Joe Biden works to build international backing for his approach to Beijing – is part of a new trilateral partnership among the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, dubbed “AUKUS.”
Biden White House
European leaders have conveyed varying levels of dismay and feelings of exclusion over the deal. One European Union official indicated they were completely unaware of the agreement. And French officials – angered that France now stands to lose the equivalent of $65 billion US dollars in an existing deal to provide Australia with conventional submarines – say the US showed a “lack of coherence” by signing on to the agreement.
Still, a senior administration official said top American officials had communicated with their counterparts in France about the new agreement before and after it was announced.
“I will leave it to our Australian partners to describe why they sought this new technology,” the official added.
Australia’s Defense Minister Peter Dutton said in a news conference on Thursday that the decision to choose the American nuclear-powered submarine over France’s conventional diesel submarine “is based on what is in the best interests of our national security.”
Dutton argued that “the French have a version which was not superior to that operated by the United States, the United Kingdom. And in the end, the decision that we have made is based on what is in the best interest of our national security.”
The new agreement comes ahead of Biden’s scheduled meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson next week at the White House, which two officials confirmed to CNN on Thursday.
Several foreign leaders are expected to visit the US for the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, but many leaders coming to the US for the assembly are still waiting to hear if they will get sessions with Biden.
The President’s attempt to thread the needle of European diplomacy and navigate a post-Brexit world has left some loyal allies suggesting Biden’s actions have ignored their needs or have been in line with those of his pro-nationalist predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
France has trained its ire about the agreement on Australia, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calling it a “real stab in the back.”
But he also had strong words for the US, saying, “This brutal and unilateral decision resembles a lot of what Trump is doing.”
Le Drian also released a joint statement with French Armed Forces Minister Florency Parly on Wednesday, saying, “The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”
French officials have also scrapped an upcoming reception at the French Embassy in Washington, DC, and toned down celebrations to commemorate a a Revolutionary War naval victory by the French that helped the US to win its independence.
The embassy said the celebrations have been made “more sober” and a reception planned for Friday at the ambassador’s residence to mark the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes has been called off. A reception on a frigate in Baltimore has also been downsized, a senior French official told CNN, who said the changes were “to make the people more comfortable.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed some of Le Drian’s comments.
When asked what Biden thinks of the foreign minister’s comments, Psaki said during the White House press briefing on Thursday, “The President doesn’t think about it much.”
“The President’s focus is on maintaining and continuing our close relationships with leaders in France, with the United Kingdom, with Australia, and to achieving our global objectives, which include security in the Indo-Pacific. That’s what his focus is, and we’ll continue to work toward a productive, constructive partnership with the French,” Psaki added.
She emphasized that it was Australia’s decision to pursue the nuclear submarine technology and said the US and France “continue to be important partners.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken similarly sought to downplay the rift between the US and France, stressing the importance of Paris as “a vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific and around the world.
“I want to emphasize that there is no regional divide separating the interests of our Atlantic and our Pacific partners,” he said in remarks at the State Department on Thursday.
Blinken said the US welcomes “European countries playing an important role in the Indo-Pacific,” adding that “France, in particular, is a vital partner on this and so many other issues stretching back generations, and we want to find every opportunity to deepen our trans-Atlantic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and around the world.”
EU Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell said in a news conference on Thursday that the European Union was just made aware of the alliance and it had not been consulted. However, he stressed the importance of the timeliness of this announcement and urged Europe for a coordinate presence in the region.
“Of course, I do understand the extent to which the French government must be disappointed, and ministers of foreign affairs and defense, I know … we will be aware and pressing for an increase of our presence in the Indo-Pacific to defend our interests there and our values,” he added.
Borrell also said the EU is happy to cooperate on defense with the UK but there was not “a lot of interest” from their side.
“So we will be very happy if they want to participate on this coordinated presence. Nothing will prevent us from willing to cooperate with UK, if they want. You need two to dance the tango. But from our part we are ready to dance,” he added.
A US official on Thursday defended the US’ decision to pursue the new partnership along with working with traditional groups of allies.
“Our administration is focused on revitalizing alliances and partnerships to support the rules-based international order. That means both strengthening long-standing historic ties, including with our NATO Allies and the EU, as well as working through new configurations, such as the Quad or AUKUS,” the official said. “This network of alliances and partnerships is our greatest source and strength and necessary to deal effectively with 21st-century challenges.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Katya Krebs, Jennifer Hansler, Alex Marquardt, Kylie Atwood and Hande Atay Alam contributed to this report.