Two Years After AUKUS, Australia and France Reach Base-Sharing Agreement

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Two years after a major diplomatic dispute over a canceled submarine order, the governments of Australia and France have decided to bury the hatchet with an agreement to share naval base access in the Pacific. 

In September 2021, the administration of then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison decided to abandon a troubled $65 billion deal to buy conventionally-powered submarines from France’s Naval Group. Instead, Australia would pursue a joint UK-American-Australian nuclear submarine program, sharing technology and production resources among the three nations. French diplomats said that they were blindsided by the cancellation because the landmark “AUKUS” deal was negotiated in secret. “This is not done between allies,” said France’s then-defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at the time. “It’s a stab in the back.”

The intervening two years have brought a change in government and a different tenor. Under a  new plan for naval cooperation, France and Australia will now have easier access to strategic facilities in the Indo-Pacific, extending their reach in a region of vital interest. France has colonial-era holdings in archipelagos across the Pacific, from the Gambier Islands in the east to New Caledonia in the west, as well as the outposts of Reunion and Mayotte in the southwestern Indian Ocean.   

In a briefing paper, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that better access to French bases in the Pacific and Indian Oceans “will facilitate a more sustained Australian presence in priority areas of operation.”

An accompanying joint statement expounded at length on Chinese maritime ambitions, without naming China. The two nations stated their “strong opposition to any coercion or destabilizing actions in the South China Sea,” and opposed the militarization of disputed island features. They also called for protecting freedom of navigation, respecting the Philippines’ sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone, and ensuring stability of cross-Strait relations. France and Australia also pledged to work towards “an Indo-Pacific region that is open, stable, prosperous and inclusive, with respect for all countries’ sovereignty.”

The agreement is part of a new “Australia-France Road Map” for improved relations, which also includes more defense industry cooperation, intelligence sharing, scientific collaboration and aerospace sector development. 

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