Foreign Secretary Marise Payne to visit France to restore relations after underwater row

Marise Payne is set to travel to Paris next month for a key meeting between European and Indo-Pacific foreign ministers, potentially offering the government a chance to start mending relations with France following the acrimonious dispute over subs. -sailors.

The French government has invited a host of foreign ministers from across Asia, the Pacific and East Africa to its capital on February 22 for a meeting with their European counterparts and senior EU officials. European.

France and the European Union have released few details of the meeting, but European leaders have indicated they want to strengthen their “strategic autonomy” and increase investment in the Indo-Pacific, in part to counterbalance the China.

Neither the United States nor China were invited.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France and Europe needed to work on an “alternative model” of engagement with Indo-Pacific countries to counter Chinese power games.(Reuters: Mohammad Hamed)

Last year, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused Beijing of trying to maintain a “facade of multilateralism” while engaging in “asymmetrical” competitions with smaller states in the region. region and said that France and Europe should work on an “alternative model”. engagement with countries.

The meeting offers the chance to restore relations

Senator Payne’s office confirmed that she was invited to the Paris meeting.

The foreign minister has yet to say whether she will attend, but close observers say it is very likely she will, given the importance of the meeting and the opportunities it presents.

“We welcome the invitation from France and the European Union to participate in the Ministerial Forum for Indo-Pacific Cooperation in February,” a spokesman for the foreign minister told the ABC.

The visit, if confirmed, will follow a meeting of Quad foreign ministers in Melbourne in mid-February.

Senator Payne will host US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar for talks on a range of issues ranging from cybersecurity, infrastructure, China, vaccine distribution, regional security and Russia’s threats to Ukraine.

She said the meeting was “a further demonstration of the Morrison government‘s efforts to actively shape and influence our region and our world by deepening partnerships at a time of strategic competition, threats to the liberal international order and growing uncertainty. “.

Restoring relations with France will be a more difficult and arduous task.

Ties between Paris and Canberra remain deeply strained following the federal government’s decision to abandon the multi-billion dollar submarine contract with French company Naval Group and adopt a plan to build submarines in nuclear propulsion with American and British technology under the AUKUS pact.

Paris withdrew its ambassador to Canberra after the announcement and several ministers berated Australia, with Mr Le Drian accusing Australia of “stabbing (France) in the back”.

French officials also said trust between the two countries had been “broken” because Australia deliberately hid the nuclear submarine project from them.

Representative: Macron Morrison
French President Emmanuel Macron says Scott Morrison lied to him about the submarine deal.(Provided: Prime Minister’s Office, Adam Taylor)

French cold shoulder

The dispute escalated further when French President Emmanuel Macron said Prime Minister Scott Morrison lied to him about the submarine contract.

This in turn angered Australian ministers, who said Mr Macron’s personal attacks were deeply inappropriate and insisted the French president knew Australia was considering alternatives to French submarines.

Neither Australian nor French government sources argue that the invitation signals an impending thaw in the relationship.

While France has stopped publicly criticizing Australia, there have been no public signs of reconciliation and both sides predict it will take time for relations to improve.

‘Major change’ in ties unlikely until election

Analysts also say there is unlikely to be a major change before the French presidential elections in April and the Australian federal elections, which are due in May.

But the trip could nonetheless provide Senator Payne with a useful opportunity to meet senior French officials or ministers for the first time since the bitter fallout over the submarines and begin the process of rebuilding the relationship.

Dr Eglantine Staunton, who teaches in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University, said while the invitation should not be over-interpreted, it was still an “encouraging” sign for Australia.

“Some major powers, namely China and the United States, were not invited and there was no guarantee that Australia would receive an invitation. It is therefore a sign that, despite the controversy under- navy, France is always open to cooperation with Australia,” she said.

In November, French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault said Australia needed to explain what concrete steps it would take to mend the ties, but the federal government seemed convinced they would eventually recover simply because of converging interests. and the weight of strategic logic.

French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault gestures outside his residence in Canberra.
French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thébault said it was up to Australia to repair the damage done.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Last weekend, the federal government announced it would seek to join a European Union action against China at the World Trade Organization after Beijing hit Lithuania with sweeping trade sanctions.

The Chinese government has downgraded relations with the Baltic nation and is trying to isolate it economically after Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open an embassy in the capital Vilnius.

France an “important partner” for Australia

Australian officials also highlighted how Australia, New Zealand and France worked together to coordinate relief efforts in Tonga after the Pacific island nation was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami in Beginning of the month.

Senator Payne’s spokesperson stressed that France remained “an important partner” for Australia and cited “our ongoing cooperation in humanitarian aid and disaster relief to provide support to the Tonga” as evidence.

But Dr Staunton said that while the two countries would eventually ‘move past’ the underwater dispute, the relationship would only return to its full potential if Australia made tangible concessions.

She suggested Australia could mend the fences by committing to new defense contracts with French military companies, or by expressing regret – just as US President Joe Biden did – for the way the announcement of AUKUS has been managed.

The submarine contract controversy has also seen the 12th round of free trade talks between Australia and the European Union, which was due to take place in October, pushed back to February this year.

But the federal government expects that they will now go ahead as planned.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could visit Australia as part of a wider regional trip next month, despite the intense domestic political scandal over ‘lockdown parties’ in Downing Street, as well as the continuing uncertainty about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Japanese officials have informed the media that Mr Johnson may also travel to Tokyo in February.