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'Stab in the back': France blasts new UK-US-Australia security pact in Indo-Pacific

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By Alice Tidey
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French President Emmanuel Macron (2/L) and then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (C) on HMAS Waller, an Australian Royal Navy submarine, Sydney, May 2, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron (2/L) and then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (C) on HMAS Waller, an Australian Royal Navy submarine, Sydney, May 2, 2018.   -   Copyright  BRENDAN ESPOSITO / POOL / AFP
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Paris on Thursday blasted the new Indo-Pacific security alliance between the UK, US and Australia as a "stab in the back".

The "AUKUS" partnership was announced the previous day by Washington, Canberra and London to counter China's influence in the region. It will see Australia cancel its contract with France for submarines in order to get some nuclear-powered ones from its new partners.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described himself on France Info radio on Thursday morning as "angry" over the announcement. "It's just not done between allies."

"It's a stab in the back," he said, adding: "This unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision is very similar to what Mr Trump used to do."

He stressed that France won the contract to supply submarines to Australia two years ago and that neither the US nor the UK had taken part in the tender process.

"We had established a relationship of trust with Australia and this trust has been betrayed," Le Drian said. "This is not the end of the story."

In a joint statement with the Defence Ministry released earlier in the day, France's Foreign Ministry had said that Australia's decision "is contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia, based on a relationship of political trust as well as on the development of a very high-level defence industrial and technological base in Australia."

It also said that the "American choice to exclude a European ally and partner 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 with regret."

'Peace and stability'

Australia, Britain and the US said their new AUKUS security pact aimed to protect and defend shared interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

Although none of the three governments made any mention of China, the new partnership is widely understood to be an attempt to counter Beijing's assertiveness in the region.

It plans for deeper diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation between the three capitals with enhanced capabilities and interoperability in cyber, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden said in a statement that their partnership is "guided by our enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order."

Biden said during a joint press conference that the three leaders "all recognise the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term."

"We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve," he went on.

The US leader also singled out France for its "substantial Indo-Pacific presence" and for being a "key partner and ally in strengthening the security and prosperity of the region."

"The United States looks forward to working closely with France and other key countries as we fo forward," he also said.

Canberra said the deal is "pivotal for Australia to become a more capable power in the 21st century".

It added that it intends for the eight nuclear-powered submarines the partnership plans for to be built in Adelaide.

"Nuclear-powered submarines have superior characteristics of stealth, speed, manoeuvrability, survivability, and almost limitless endurance, when compared to conventional submarines," Canberra argued.

The abilities allow nuclear-powered submarines to operate in contested areas with a lower risk of detection," it added.

Morrison also stressed that "Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons."

'Highly irresponsible'

Beijing has meanwhile criticised the pact, arguing it "severely undermines regional stability and peace, intensifies arms race and undercuts international non-proliferation efforts."

"It's highly irresponsible and shows double standards on using nuclear export for geopolitical games," foreign ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhao said.

A foreign affairs spokesperson for the European Union confirmed that Brussels "was not informed about this project or this initiative".

"We are in contact with the said partners to find out more and of course we have to discuss this within the EU with our member states to assess the implications of such an announcement," Peter Stano added.

As it so happens, the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, is to outline the bloc's strategy for the Indo-Pacific later on Thursday.