Biden tells Macron US clumsy in Australian submarine deal

The US president says the submarine deal was not done with a lot of grace

French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden meet at the French Embassy to the Vatican in Rome. — AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden meet at the French Embassy to the Vatican in Rome. — AFP


Published: Fri 29 Oct 2021, 8:39 PM

Meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, President Joe Biden said America was “clumsy” in its orchestration of a secret US-British submarine deal with Australia, an arrangement that left France in the lurch and rattled Europe’s faith in American loyalty.

Biden and Macron greeted each other with handshakes and shoulder-grabs before their first face-to-face meeting since the deal was publicly announced in September, marking the latest American effort to try to smooth hurt French sensibilities. Biden didn’t formally apologise to Macron, but conceded the US should not have caught its oldest ally by surprise.

“I think, what happened was to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy,” Biden said, adding the submarine deal “was not done with a lot of grace”.

“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before,” he added.

The US-led submarine contract supplanted a prior French deal to supply Australia with its own submarines. The US argued that the move, which will arm the Pacific ally with higher-quality nuclear-powered boats, will better enable Australia to contain Chinese encroachment in the region.

Macron was expecting Biden to make a new “commitment” to supporting French anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel region of Africa, according to a top French official. France has been seeking greater intelligence and military cooperation from the US in the Sahel.

Macron said the two allies would develop “stronger cooperation” to prevent a similar misunderstanding from happening again.

“What really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years,” he said.

Biden and Macron were set to discuss new ways to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific, a move meant to soothe French tempers over being excised from the US-UK-Australia partnership that accompanied the submarine deal. Other topics on the agenda include China, Afghanistan, and Iran, particularly in light of the latter nation agreeing to return to the nuclear negotiating table next month.

But the French, who lost out on more than $60 billion from the deal, have argued that the Biden administration at the highest levels misled them about the talks with Australia and even levied criticism that Biden was adopting the tactics of his bombastic predecessor, Donald Trump. France is especially angry over being kept in the dark about a major geopolitical shift, and having its interests in the Indo-Pacific — where France has territories with 2 million people and 7,000 troops — ignored.

The row challenged Biden’s carefully honed image of working to stabilise and strengthen the trans-Atlantic alliance after Trump’s presidency, as France for the first time in some 250 years of diplomatic relations pulled its ambassador to the US in protest.

US officials, from Biden on down, have worked for weeks to try to soothe tensions, though not so much for Biden to visit France himself to try to reset relations with Paris. Instead, he’s dispatched Vice President Kamala Harris for a visit in early November.

In a concession by the White House, the Biden-Macron meeting in Rome is being organised and hosted by France, which Macron’s office called “politically important”. Meanwhile, first lady Jill Biden was to host Brigitte Macron for a “bilateral engagement’ on Friday afternoon.

White House officials said Biden has not formally apologised to the French leader. Instead, according to press secretary Jen Psaki, “he acknowledged that there could have been greater consultation” ahead of the deal announcement.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the two leaders would “literally cover the waterfront of issues facing the US-France alliance,” including counterterrorism in the Middle East, China and trade and economic issues.

“We feel very good about the intensive engagement that we’ve had with France over the course of the past few weeks,” he added. He said he expected Biden and Macron to issue a joint statement outlining areas of mutual cooperation, including the Indo-Pacific and economic and technological cooperation.

While the US focuses on Asia, Macron is seeking to bolster Europe’s own defence capabilities, such as via more military equipment and military operations abroad.

France wants Western allies to “divide up roles” instead of competing against each other, and for the Americans to be “allies as loyal and as available for their European partners as always,” according to the top French official.

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