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Australia and France sign military access agreement as post-Aukus tensions ease

<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Australia and France have promised to grant “enhanced” access to each other’s military bases and training facilities in a clear break from their post-Aukus blues.

Under a “roadmap” signed on Monday, France will gain increased access to Australian defence facilities, while the two sides will also carry out more complex joint military training activities and increase the sharing of intelligence.

In return, Australia will gain more access to French defence facilities across the Indo-Pacific region. The document says this allow “a more sustained Australian presence in priority areas of operation”.

At this stage, the increased “reciprocal access” to each country’s military facilities is expected to rely on “existing legal frameworks”.

The plans were announced after the Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, held talks in Canberra with her visiting French counterpart, Catherine Colonna.

“This is a very important part of - I think Catherine described it as a reset of the relationship,” Wong said at a press conference on Monday afternoon following their meeting.

Colonna later quipped: “Our task was to rebuild, reset, use whatever word is appropriate. I don’t know which one you prefer.”

The deal marks a clear break from the diplomatic rupture that occurred in 2021 when France complained it was blindsided by the then Morrison government’s decision to scrap a French contract for conventional submarines.

Related: Australia and France agree arms deal for Ukraine as talks seek to bury Aukus debacle

The government’s decision to pursue the Aukus pact with the US and the UK, under which Australia will acquire and build nuclear-powered submarines, prompted France to temporarily recall its ambassador from Canberra in protest.

The row also sparked the infamous refrain from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, “I don’t think, I know,” when asked whether he thought Scott Morrison, then prime minister, lied to him about the saga.

Morrison denied the claim at the time, but more recently has said that secrecy was necessary to prevent France from trying to “kill” the Aukus deal.

“Not telling him is not the same as lying to him,” Morrison told the book author and journalist Richard Kerbaj.

In an address to the National Press Club in Canberra earlier on Monday, Colonna said the Aukus announcement was not a “pleasant” moment “but we decided to move on”.

Colonna emphasised the need for stability in the Indo-Pacific region, saying the world “doesn’t need a new crisis”.

She raised concerns about China’s military interactions with Australian naval divers in Japan’s exclusive economic zone last month, as well as confrontations with the Philippines.

At a later meeting at Parliament House, Wong and Colonna adopted a “bilateral roadmap” to improve the relationship in three areas: security and defence; climate action and resilience; and culture and education.

The foreign ministers also discussed the countries’ responses to the conflict in Gaza, which Wong said was “extremely closely aligned”.

Wong and Colonna were in lockstep on their talking points, agreeing Israel can defend itself but should heed to international law.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, over the weekend called for Israel to “clarify” its objective in Gaza, saying the “total destruction of Hamas” would mean “the war will last 10 years”.

Wong has continued to call for humanitarian truces and steps toward a permanent ceasefire while the French government has consistently called for a ceasefire.

Asked whether Colonna had urged Wong to use stronger language, the French minister responded there was not “much difference in the assessment that we make of the situation in the Middle East”.

Wong said an assessment by US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, that Israel would face “strategic defeat” if it did not heed international warnings about the rising number of civilian deaths in Gaza was an “important statement”.

The Pentagon chief told the Reagan National Defense Forum “you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians”.

“In this kind of a fight, the centre of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” Austin said.

Gaza’s health ministry estimates more than 15,000 have been killed since Israel’s response to the 7 October attacks by Hamas in which about 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 others taken hostage.