Britain, America and Australia clashed with both France and China on Thursday over a new security pact to build nuclear-powered submarines.
French ministers reacted angrily after Australia ditched a deal with a shipbuilder in France for up to 12 conventionally-powered diesel-electric submarines, to instead opt for a nuclear-powered fleet under the new “Aukus” pact.
The deal will be a significant boost to Britain’s defence industry which has expertise in submarine technologies.
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” said foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “It’s a break in trust and I am extremely angry.”
France’s ex-ambassador to the US Gérard Araud went further, tweeting: “The world is a jungle. France has just been reminded this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia.”
However, Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace sought to defuse tensions, denying it was a “betrayal” of the French. “We didn’t go fishing for these opportunities, fundamentally the Australians made a decision they wanted a different capability,” he stressed.
“We have no intention of doing anything to antagonise the French — they are some of our closest military allies.”
He also rejected China’s accusations of a “Cold War” mentality after the defence partnership was struck.
Speaking on Times Radio, he said: “To call it a Cold War is out of date.”
China’s US embassy had responded to the move by saying that countries “should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties”.
“In particular, they should shake off their Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice,” it added.
As the row grew, it was announced that Boris Johnson would make a statement to MPs on the new military pact.
Mr Wallace insisted that the partnership was not about “sending a message to China”.
But he also told BBC Breakfast: “China is embarking on one of the biggest military spends... in history, it’s growing its Navy and Air Force at a huge rate, extremely fast.
“It’s engaged in some controversial and disputed areas. So we’ve seen that... and it’s right that the UK, alongside other allies such as Australia, stand up for the rules-based system and international law.” The agreement has raised eyebrows over why Canada and New Zealand were not part of it, as together with the other three nations they form the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership.
Australian naval chiefs approached the head of the Royal Navy in the spring about a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, a technology which includes closely protected secret technologies.
Given the vast waters around Australia, the US and UK agreed to work with Canberra so it could develop these submarines which have greater “endurance, speed and reach” than more conventionally-powered models.
Australia will be only the second country after Britain in 1958 to be given access to US nuclear technology to build nuclear-powered submarines.
Prime minister Scott Morrison said: “To help deliver the security and stability our region needs, we must now take our partnership to a new level.”
Canada, with the US as its neighbour, may not be seen as requiring such a nuclear capability and New Zealand has a ban on nuclear-powered submarines entering its waters.
It was not clear whether a wider partnership beyond Aukus will emerge in future. Australia will build eight nuclear-powered submarines under the pact. They will not carry nuclear weapons.
Dr Bates Gill, head of Asia-Pacific security studies at Macquarie university, said: “Beijing will certainly interpret the new subs as a shot across China’s bow.”
In an embarrassing moment, US President Joe Biden appeared to forget the name of Mr Morrison last night.
During a press conference, he said: “Thank you Boris [Johnson] and I want to thank uh, that fella Down Under,” he said, turning to a TV screen showing Mr Morrison.