France cancels defence summit with UK as submarine deal fallout continues

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Aukus deal will not affect co-operation with France, says Alok Sharma - JEFF OVERS/BBC /via REUTERS
Aukus deal will not affect co-operation with France, says Alok Sharma - JEFF OVERS/BBC /via REUTERS

France has cancelled a ministerial defence meeting with Britain this week amid an escalating diplomatic row over a nuclear-powered submarine deal.

Paris was left blindsided by the announcement last week of a new trilateral security pact between the UK, US and Australia - known as AUKUS.

It involved Canberra cancelling a £72.8 billion deal with the French for diesel-electric submarines and pursuing a rival plan to acquire nuclear-powered boats with help from the US and Britain instead.

Reacting with fury this weekend, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused the UK of “permanent opportunism”, while the French Europe minister Clement Beaune accused Britain of being a vassal state of Washington.

On Sunday night it emerged that French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly had decided to scrap a meeting planned for this week with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, according to sources quoted by Reuters.

Boris Johnson has told France not to “worry” about the new Australia-UK-US defence pact as he attempted to calm the furious response from Paris to the announcement.

Speaking to reporters on a flight to America, the Prime Minister said the UK’s “love” for France was “ineradicable” and pointed to their joint military co-operation as proof.

The comments are Mr Johnson’s first since a new string of barbs and insults from French ministers.

Asked for his view on the heated diplomatic row and whether the UK was indeed a “lap dog” to Joe Biden, the US president, Mr Johnson reached for positives.

“We are very, very proud of our relationship with France and it is of huge importance to this country,” Mr Johnson said.

“It is a very friendly relationship - an entente cordial - that goes back a century or more and it is absolutely vital to us.

“We work with France shoulder to shoulder in the Baltic states, in the biggest current Nato deployment.

“British troops, French troops, side-by-side; there are no two sets of armed forces that are more capable of integration together and working side by side.”

Mr Johnson pointed to the existence of a joint program testing nuclear explosions called Teutates, adding: “Which I think is the Gaulish god of thunder, from my studies of Astrix.”

The Prime Minister went on: “This is something that goes very, very deep; our love of France, our admiration of France is ineradicable.”

Pushed again on whether the UK was the lap dog of America, Mr Johnson said: “What I would say is this AUKUS is not in any way meant to be zero sum, it is not meant to be exclusionary, it is not something I don’t think anyone needs to worry about and particularly not our French friends.”

The comments are an attempt to calm the anger emanating from Paris over what the French have branded a “stab in the back”.

Alok Sharma, President of the COP26 climate change summit and a Cabinet Office minister, on Sunday sought to ease tensions between the two nations.

He said of the AUKUS pact: “This is among three close allies, this is about security in the Indo-Pacific. When it comes to France, we will continue to have very close cooperation with them on security matters, through Nato, through the Joint Expeditionary Force.”

The new alliance “isn't about provoking anyone”, he added, stressing the UK wanted to maintain “constructive relationships” with other countries.

Asked about the suggestion Britain was a “vassal” to the US, Mr Sharma told Times Radio: “I don’t see us having vassal status to anyone.”

While mention of Beijing was studiously avoided when AUKUS was unveiled last week, it is understood to be aimed at countering China’s growing military might and aggressive approach to trade.

China reacted angrily to the creation of the landmark security alliance, branding it “extremely irresponsible” and “narrow-minded”.

Britain has attempted to walk a tightrope on China policy, censuring the nation for human rights abuses and unfair trade practices, while acknowledging that buy-in from Beijing is needed to solve global challenges such as climate change.

On Sunday, Mr Sharma admitted that Chinese President Xi Jinping has yet to confirm he will attend the climate summit in Glasgow that starts at the end of next month.

The absence of Mr Xi, who has not left China in 18 months, could deal a heavy blow to the Prime Minister’s ambitions for the meeting.

Mr Sharma insisted that “normally these things come a bit closer to summits”, but added that in addition to the Chinese president, he was hopeful of a high-level Chinese delegation.

“I certainly expect that China will send the negotiating team to Glasgow,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.

Green MP Caroline Lucas warned that Mr Sharma’s efforts at international diplomacy “are being entirely undermined by Government actions at home”.

Asked if a sustainable deal can be struck without China, she told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme: “I think that's almost impossible to envisage, no. It is absolutely essential that China is there and that's why I am deeply concerned about this new so-called Aukus deal because we have just enraged the Chinese even more.

"If Cop26, these UN climate talks, are our top diplomatic priority then everything else should be taking second place to that, so I'm deeply worried about relations with China."

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