CANBERRA – France would have known Australia had “deep and grave concerns” that a submarine fleet the French were building would not meet Australian needs, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Sunday after the contract's cancellation set off a diplomatic crisis.
France accused Australia of concealing its intentions to back out of the 90 billion Australian dollar ($66 billion) contract for French majority state-owned Naval Group to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.
President Joe Biden revealed last week a new alliance including Australia and Britain that would deliver an Australian fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.
Morrison blamed the switch on a deteriorating strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. He has not specifically referred to China’s massive military buildup, which has gained pace in recent years.
“The capability that the Attack class submarines were going to provide was not what Australia needed to protect our sovereign interests,” Morrison said.
“They would have had every reason to know that we have deep and grave concerns that the capability being delivered by the Attack class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests and we have made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest,” he added, referring to the French government.
France responded to the contract cancellation, which Morrison has said will cost his government at least AU$2.4 billion ($1.7 billion), by recalling its ambassadors from Australia and the United States.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Saturday denounced what he called the “duplicity, disdain and lies” surrounding the sudden end of the contract and said France was now questioning the strength of the alliance.
On Sunday, the French government spokesman said President Emmanuel Macron will speak in the coming days with Biden in what will be their first contact since the crisis erupted.
The phone call is at the request of Biden, spokesman Gabriel Attal said, adding that there was “shock” and “anger” at first. But now it’s time to try to move forward, he said.
China has denounced the sharing of such U.S. and British nuclear technology as irresponsible.
France won the contract in 2016 over offers from Germany and Japan. The Shortfin Barracuda was to be a nuclear submarine design adapted to be powered by diesel on the surface and battery underwater.
Japan was particularly disappointed because then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott had promised the close defense ally the contract before he was deposed by his own party in 2015.
The government has talked down media reports of ructions between the partners in the French submarine project and delays on the original delivery date of 2027.
There have been concerns of a defense capability gap emerging that the aging Australia-made Collins class conventional submarines could not fill.
Australia’s first nuclear submarines are not expected to be delivered until close to 2040.
Defense Minister Peter Dutton said his government was prepared to lease nuclear submarines from the United States while Australia’s fleet was being built.
Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne are in the United States for annual meetings with their U.S. counterparts and their first with the Biden administration.
Morrison flies to the United States on Monday for a meeting with Biden and the leaders of India and Japan that make up the Quad security forum.