PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron told Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during their first conversation since Australia pulled out of a multibillion-dollar submarine deal that it is up to Morrison’s government to repair the damaged relationship between their countries, France's presidency said Thursday.
Australia last month canceled a contract to buy diesel-electric French submarines and agreed to acquire American nuclear-powered vessels instead as part of an Indo-Pacific security pact with the United States and Britain. The pact, known as AUKUS, infuriated France, which recalled its two of its ambassadors over the lost deal.
“President Macron recalled that Australia’s unilateral decision to scale back the French-Australian strategic partnership by putting an end to the ocean-class submarine program in favor of another as-yet unspecified project broke the relationship of trust between our two countries," Macron's office said.
The presidential Elysee Palace added that Australia should now come up with “tangible actions that embody the political will of Australia’s highest authorities to redefine the basis of our bilateral relationship and continue joint action in the Indo-Pacific."
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said he had seen a read out of the conversation and it was a “productive phone call.”
“Obviously the French are upset, there is no question about that,” Dutton told Nine Network television.
“So they have expressed that and we understand their frustration. But we made a decision that was in our national interest,” Dutton added.
Morrison had been “keen for the phone call to happen,” Dutton said.
Dutton suggested the bilateral tensions were escalated by French elections next year.
“Don’t forget too that France has got an election in April of next year. So politicians and elections always make for an interesting mix,” Dutton said.
“So I think once we get through that next year, hopefully we can continue with steps to normalize the relationship. But that’s the situation at the moment,” he added.
Australia and Britain last week defended their nuclear submarine deal with the U.S. amid concerns that AUKUS could escalate tensions in the region and spark an arms race.
The pact is intended to provide Australia with nuclear reactors to power its submarines, although the subs are not supposed to be be nuclear-armed. The agreement drew mixed reactions in the Indo-Pacific region.
Malaysia and Indonesia expressed concern it adds to the strain in hotspots such as the South China Sea. China, which claims most of the disputed sea, slammed the pact and warned it would threaten regional stability.
Others nations such as the Philippines, which claims part of the South China Sea, suggested AUKUS could help restore balance in the region, alluding to China’s growing military might.
Ahead of a Group of 20 meeting in Rome this weekend and the Oct. 31-Nov. 12 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Macron also discussed climate issues with Morrison, according to the French president's office.
The Elysee Palace said Macron urged the Australian prime minister to adopt “ambitious measures to commensurate with the climate challenge, in particular the ratcheting up of the nationally determined contribution, the commitment to cease production and consumption of coal at the national level and abroad, and greater Australian support to the International Solar Alliance."
Earlier, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne expressed regret to an Australian Senate committee that key allies learned about the French contract cancellation through the media rather than through diplomatic channels.
Payne had been advised by her department that countries including France, Japan, Indonesia, India, South Korea, New Zealand and Canada should be notified before the public announcement of the nuclear-powered submarine deal.
But leaks to the media the night before derailed the timeline for “a number of key players,” Payne said. She did not name those countries.
Payne said she would prefer sensitive information about Australia’s security decisions was not canvassed in the media before they were officially announced.
“I think that is regrettable,” she said.