Liz Truss hails 'hard-headed' AUKUS submarine deal as French foreign minister calls UK 'spare tyre'

19 September 2021, 02:13 | Updated: 19 September 2021, 10:00

New Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has defended the UK's "hard-headed" security pact with the US and Australia, amid a deepening diplomatic row with France.

The AUKUS deal saw the UK, Australia and the US form a security pact to develop and deploy a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, adding to the Western military presence in the Pacific region.

The UK's foreign secretary said the agreement showed Britain's readiness to be "hard-headed in defending our interests", adding that it could result in hundreds of new jobs.

Ms Truss's comments came as the French foreign minister accused pact members of "lies... duplicity" and a "major break in trust" and the UK of being a "spare tyre" in the partnership.

France was outraged by the deal which sees them losing out on a £48bn contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia, who opted for nuclear-powered subs provided by Britain and the US.

In response, they recalled their ambassadors to the US and Australia, although there was no similar order to return to Paris for the French envoy to London.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Ms Truss made no mention of the diplomatic stand-off with the French.

In her article, Ms Truss said the agreement, widely seen as a counter to increasing Chinese military assertiveness in the region, underlined the UK's commitment to the Indo-Pacific.

She said Britain would always be a "fierce champion" of freedom and that the agreement illustrates the nation's commitment to "challenging unfair practices and malign acts".

"Freedoms need to be defended, so we are also building strong security ties around the world," she wrote.

"That is why last week the prime minister announced, alongside our friends President Biden and Prime Minister Morrison, the creation of a new security partnership called AUKUS.

"It shows our readiness to be hard-headed in defending our interests and challenging unfair practices and malign acts."

France's foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said his country's decision to recall their ambassadors to the US and Australia showed the intensity of the crisis.

In an interview with France 2, he said: "There have been lies, there has been duplicity, there has been a major break of trust, there has been contempt, so it's not going well between us, not at all.

"We're recalling our ambassadors to try to understand, but also to show to our former partner countries that we have very strong discontent, really a serious crisis between us."

Later in the interview, he added: "We're recalling our ambassadors to see how we can re-evaluate the situation, but with Britain, we do not need to. We know their constant opportunism, so there's no use in having our ambassador (in Britain) come to explain that to us. In addition, Britain in this matter is quite the spare tyre."

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he understood French disappointment but Australia needed to look after its interests.

He said: "Of course it's a matter of great disappointment to the French government, so I understand their disappointment. But at the same time, Australia like any sovereign nation must always take decisions that are in our sovereign national defence interest."

Gerard Araud, former French ambassador to the US, told Sky's Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme that French upset was not just about the loss of the submarine contract - it was because it has lost a strategic partnership it had hoped to build on in the Indo-Pacific region, having recently undertaken naval drills with India and Australia.

On Saturday, the president of the French National Assembly told Sky News that the bonds of friendship between France and the UK, US and Australia have been "tarnished" by the AUKUS pact.

Speaking while attending the G7 Speakers' Conference in Chorley, Lancashire, Richard Ferrand said: "I think it has somewhat tarnished the bonds of friendship that we have. Yes, it has made things more difficult in terms of trust and friendship."

Pressed on why Catherine Colonna, the top French diplomat in the UK was not recalled, Mr Ferrand said: "Obviously it was not my decision but we thought it was more important to recall the ambassadors of the two main protagonists in this thing."

Andreas Michaelis, Germany's ambassador to the UK, has suggested the AUKUS agreement threatens the "coherence and unity of the West".

The French were reportedly given just a few hours' notice of the new agreement ahead of what is expected to be a tough election year for Mr Macron.

Beijing swiftly denounced the initiative as "extremely irresponsible" and a threat to regional peace and stability.

Leon Panetta, the former US secretary of defence, said the deal was "about engagement and it's about deterrence".

He told Sky News' Trevor Phillips on Sunday: "I think that the most important thing that needs to be done in dealing with China is to strengthen our alliances.

"The one thing the Chinese don't do very well is have allies. That's not something that works well for them. Same thing is true for Russia.

"They don't like other countries developing alliances that might limit them in the decisions they make.

"So I think the fact that we announced this security partnership and that we made clear we are going to be able to exchange not only intelligence but also technologies and we're going to help provide nuclear-powered submarines to the Australians so that they can have that capability.

"I think what that does is it sends a message to China that we are not going to simply sit back and allow China to have its way in the Pacific."