Defence Secretary Ben Wallace insisted Britain did not “go fishing” for the pact to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia with the US after France called it a “stab in the back”.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused the Australians of a betrayal because the alliance meant they scrapped a multi-billion deal for France to provide subs.
The UK, US and Australia agreed to co-operate on the development of the first nuclear-powered fleet for the Australian navy in a ground-breaking agreement dubbed Aukus.
But this meant that Canberra ripped up a deal worth around £30 billion that was struck with Paris in 2016 for France to provide 12 diesel-electric submarines.
A diplomatic row broke out, with Mr Le Drian telling France-Info radio: “It was really a stab in the back.
“We built a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed.”
Mr Wallace said he recognises the “frustration” from France after speaking to his French counterpart Florence Parly on Wednesday night.
“I understand France’s disappointment.
“They had a contract with the Australians for diesel-electrics from 2016 and the Australians have taken this decision that they want to make a change,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“We didn’t go fishing for that, but as a close ally when the Australians approached us of course we would consider it.
“I understand France’s frustration about it.”
Boris Johnson told MPs on Thursday that the UK’s military relationship with France is “rock solid” and insisted “we stand shoulder to shoulder with the French” despite the row.
The Prime Minister met with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, and US President Joe Biden at the G7 summit in Cornwall in June.
Downing Street confirmed that the three leaders discussed the subs at the meeting.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman added: “I wouldn’t say there was one single meeting that did it, this has been something that has been an undertaking of several months, it’s a culmination of that work.”
Mr Morrison told a press conference it was undecided if Australia would purchase British-built BAE Systems Astute class submarines or the Virginia class vessels constructed in the US.
But Mr Johnson said during a Commons statement on Aukus he expects the deal will bring “hundreds of high-skilled, high-wage jobs” to the UK.
The row with France comes at a time when relations are already strained over the situation with migrant crossings in the Channel.
The French warned against the UK using “blackmail” tactics after suggestions from Home Secretary Priti Patel that she could withhold millions of pounds of cash unless there was an improvement in the number of migrants intercepted by the authorities across the Channel.
France regrets #Australia's decision on submarine cooperation, which is "contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation which prevailed," say Foreign Minister @JY_LeDrian and Armed Forces Minister @florence_parly: https://t.co/KNxf4kzQCx pic.twitter.com/ND94Pqytjp
— French Embassy UK (@FranceintheUK) September 16, 2021
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman sought to smooth relations by stressing that “we very highly value our relationship with France both in terms of defence and security and more broadly”.
He insisted talks with France would continue over efforts to prevent migrants risking crossings of the Channel, despite the row over the defence deal.
Australia “as a close ally and friend of this country” had asked for help on the defence scheme and “it was something we were pleased to be able to assist with, not in the least because it benefits the people of the UK”.
“With regards to the ongoing issues in the Channel, we want to work with our French counterparts, the Home Secretary has had a number of discussions with her counterpart, and we will continue to do so.”