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France: AUKUS

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of France since the announcement of the AUKUS agreement.

My Lords, as neighbours, allies and partners, we have continued to engage with the French Government across a wide range of business since the AUKUS announcement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer—what there was of it. This AUKUS treaty makes a lot of sense for the Australians. We often forget the huge sea ranges in that area. For example, it is 9,000 miles from the submarine building yards in south Australia to the Chinese yards; that is the same as the distance from London to Singapore. Nuclear submarines, not conventional ones, are needed to cover those ranges, so the Australians have made the right decision. Indeed, the fact that our three countries are working together confronts the Chinese on the grey-zone work they are doing against our agreed global values; that is a good thing.

However, it rather seems that we have left the French out on the side. They are very angry. At the NATO discussions this week, they were throwing their toys out of their cot. I would like to think that we have been talking closely with them. What I really want to ask the Minister is: are we still as close as we were in terms of Royal Navy-French navy liaison and the work that both navies do together, both in NATO and outside it?

I seek to assure the noble Lord that we recognise the significance of the French Government’s reaction to AUKUS and the strength of the feeling it has generated. We have a long-standing relationship with France in global security and defence; that is founded on firm lines, not least the Lancaster House agreements. We are both committed to the same things, whether that is NATO, Euro-Atlantic security or broader global security in the Indo-Pacific and south-east Asia. A lot binds us together. We value France’s presence as a defence partner and look forward to continuing to work with it closely.

I congratulate the Government on what is a very innovative new alliance, even if it was executed with maybe slightly less diplomacy for our near neighbours than it might have been. This new alliance is supportive of Australia. It reinforces the idea that China does not have free rein in the Indo-Pacific, and it reinforces the work of the Quad. With the Quad in mind, does the Minister think there will be new members of AUKUS, such as Japan?

I thank my noble friend for affirming the strategic importance of AUKUS, echoing what the noble Lord, Lord West, said. The tripartite collaboration has been formed for a specific purpose and change in that respect is not envisaged. But my noble friend is absolutely right to recognise that AUKUS complements and enhances other relationships in the region, such as the Quad, Five Eyes or the FPDA, and that reflects both NATO’s approach and the EU Indo-Pacific strategy.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that France is not only a close neighbour but also one of the few countries in the world that shares our fundamental values and interests? I support AUKUS, but was it not a great shame that no effort was made to bring France into the AUKUS conversation? Should not the Prime Minister have immediately reacted to the hurt feelings of the French by having a conversation with President Macron to see how the relationship can be put on a sound footing again?

I simply respond to the noble Lord by observing that the instigator of this new arrangement was actually Australia: it was Australia that decided that it wished to change its model of submarine. That is why it approached both the United Kingdom and the United States. As the noble Lord will understand, there are clearly issues of profound commercial sensitivity inherent within that, and that inhibited our ability to be more public or widespread in our consultations.

My Lords, when the Minister repeated the Prime Minister’s Statement on AUKUS in September, I asked what conversations the Prime Minister had had with President Macron before the announcement; answer came there none. Can the Minister please tell the House whether the Prime Minister and the Government understand the importance of the UK’s relations with France, that it remains our closest neighbour and that we should be working much more effectively to ensure that our bilateral relations and our relations within NATO are secure, because that is where our security lies?

The noble Baroness is correct about our relationship with NATO and the significance of NATO to Euro-Atlantic security; I entirely agree with that assessment. She is also correct that France is a very important partner and ally, as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle; nobody disputes that. We continue to engage and consult at macro level. We have shared common interests, and they are best prosecuted when we work together on them. That is our agenda and our endeavour, and I am absolutely certain that it is also the French objective.

My Lords, we all support the AUKUS deal, but does the Minister realise that the French are absolutely furious with us, to the extent that, only a few weeks ago, they cancelled a meeting with our Defence Secretary to look at the future of the Lancaster House agreement? We depend on France to work with us in common interests across the world, so how will the Government prevent AUKUS opening up a rift in NATO, which is central to our security in Europe and beyond, just as the alliance is working on a new strategic concept?

This is not opening up a rift in NATO. In fact, AUKUS has reinforced a NATO leaders’ summit decision to place greater emphasis on regional partnerships; and, interestingly, AUKUS reflects the new EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific for south-east Asia. There is a shared commonality of interests when we address threat, and I think I have observed before to the noble Lord that threat does not respect boundaries. So we address threats, France addresses threats and the EU addresses threats. We do it best together, and NATO is pivotal to that. That is acknowledged by all member states.

My Lords, the purpose of the AUKUS pact is to ensure stability in Asia-Pacific. What is the strategy in the intervening years, given that the nuclear submarine programme will not be in play until 2040, before which time much can happen? Additionally, has China indicated any conventional or additional proliferation retaliatory measures? Was Five Eyes cited or consulted, as this has national, regional and potentially global security consequences?

As for the future, the UK will continue to engage with allies and partners regarding the stability of the Indo-Pacific region, whether that is through the FPDA, bilateral relationships or Five Eyes, to mention but a few. With regard to Five Eyes in particular, we are discussing the arrangement with Canada and New Zealand, because Five Eyes is a unique and highly valued partnership.

My Lords, if this is a genuine defence and security treaty and not just a subterfuge to take the contract for submarines away from France, why are Canada and New Zealand not involved from the start, as the other two of the Five Eyes?

Because this new arrangement is predicated on the desire of another state—Australia—to make changes to its submarine fleet. That was not instigated by the United Kingdom; we were approached by Australia.

My Lords, this has had an impact on our relationship, as recognised by the US State Department. The Secretary of State has spent two days in France; President Biden has spoken to President Macron. At every level there has been a connection between the US and France to improve and restore relationships. What have this Government done? Has the Minister spoken to her colleagues in the FCDO? Are they working on a common strategy to improve our relationship with our closest ally?

Yes, I want to dispel the illusion that there is some conspiracy of silence on the part of the UK; there is not. Certainly, from a defence perspective, business continues, as it has to, because of the essential nature of our activity. I was at the EI2 conference in Sweden just a few weeks ago and I spoke to Madame Parly, the French Defence Minister. We have a lot of important matters to engage upon and that is what we are doing.