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France’s military ambition to strengthen its presence in the Indo-Pacific has seen Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna meet with her Australian counterpart Penny Wong to hammer out an agreement of cooperation.
Australian service personnel will receive increased access to French Defence facilities and be included in complex military drills in the Western Pacific.
The pact will also thaw frosty relations between the two countries, which were at odds after the former Liberal government’s 2021 decision to abandon a diesel-powered submarine-supply contract with France, in favour of a deal with AUKUS partners the United States and United Kingdom.
French President Emmanuel Macron said at the time “I don’t think, I know,” when asked if former Prime Minister Scott Morrison had deliberately misled him over withdrawing from the $90 billion (US$60 billion) submarine contract.
Speaking with the AAP, Ms. Colonna intimated France had moved on diplomatically from the disagreement:
“We took note of a decision by a friend—Australia—to make a sovereign decision. But we decided to move on, so let’s move on. This is what we did with a visit of Prime Minister [Anthony] Albanese to Paris.”
In a joint press conference held in Canberra after the meeting, Ms. Colonna said, “The Indo-Pacific is a top priority for France,” and the pact forms part of a collaboration that aims to counter Chinese aggression in the region.
Tensions have simmered between Canberra and Beijing since a Nov. 14 incident in which Australian Navy divers clearing fishing nets in Japanese waters were injured by solar pulses emitted from a Chinese destroyer the CNS Ningbo while near an Australian frigate HMAS Toowoomba.
The incident was another in a growing list of actions by Chinese forces in the Western-Pacific, over which, U.S., Canadian, and Australian military officials have expressed concern.
The Ningbo incident was recently referenced by International Minister of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Liu Jianchao when speaking at a precursor event to CCP leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Australia in 2024.
Mr. Liu urged the Australian military and government to act with “great prudence” in deploying warships in the South China Sea.
Beefing Up Cooperation
Speaking on the French Pact, Ms. Wong said that Australia was committed to working closely with its military partners.
“We are a nation of the Pacific, we are determined to step up, beef up cooperation with partners in the region,” she said.
When pressed for comment on the agreement, Ms. Colonna said, “As far as China is concerned, we stand with our allies and partners, especially when they face unkindly behaviours.”
France has also committed to working within a peace-making partnership with the Indian Navy and Australia’s forces in the Indian Ocean.
The French foreign minister said the CCP should be aware that Western powers were open to cooperation and it was important to avoid an “us versus them” mentality whereby countries feel they have to choose a side amongst the superpower nations.
“Our approach should not be a binary one of us or them, but one of inclusiveness and solidarity deeply rooted in increased co-operation,” Ms. Colonna said.
“We know who our friends are and we know where the threat comes from.”
The supply chains of Australia’s vast mineral reserves and how to develop markets was also a topic of discussion.
China possesses 90 percent of the world’s refining capacity and 60 percent of its production.