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Macron and Modi vow to ‘act jointly’ in Indo-Pacific as submarine row intensifies

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French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday vowed to “act jointly” in the Indo-Pacific region as a row intensified with Australia, the US and the UK over a scuttled submarine contract.

Macron‘s telephone conversation with Modi was timed conspicuously as French anger over Australia’s cancellation of a submarine contract in favour of US nuclear submarines as part of an alliance with Washington and the UK appeared undiminished.

US officials have said US President Joe Biden is seeking a phone call with Macron to ease tensions, while Macron has taken the unprecedented step of recalling France’s ambassadors to Australia and the United States. 

The French presidency said Macron and Modi agreed they would “act jointly in an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific area”. 

Macron assured Modi of France‘s continued “commitment to the strengthening of India’s strategic autonomy, including its industry and technology base, as part of a close relationship based on trust and mutual respect”.

The statement from Macron’s office said their shared approach was aimed at promoting “regional stability and the rule of law, while ruling out any form of hegemony”.

The two leaders also expressed their “grave concerns about the situation in Afghanistan” following the US withdrawal and Taliban takeover of the country.

Calling Macron “my friend” in a tweet, Modi said India placed “great value on our strategic partnership with France”.

Modi’s office added in a statement that both countries had an “important role” for stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region.

The commitment to stability in the Indo-Pacific region would be under “the framework of the Europe-India relationship and European initiatives in the Indo-Pacific”, said a statement released by the French embassy in New Delhi.

The phone call between the two leaders came days after Australia announced the cancellation of a $40 billion French submarine deal. Canberra instead announced plans to buy US nuclear-powered submarines under a new three-way strategic alliance between the US, UK and Australia, known as AUKUS, aimed at countering the rising power of China.

Indian media have speculated that the cancellation of the deal could spark a French-Indian submarines agreement.

Paris has in recent years sought to tighten ties with India. In 2016 the two sides signed a multi-billion-dollar deal for 36 French Rafale fighter jets for New Delhi.

While the agreement is under investigation in France over kickback allegations, it is viewed as a commercial and diplomatic success for Paris.

France seeks ‘clarification’  

France has accused its allies of a “stab in the back” after learning the US had secretly led talks about the new strategic alliance. 

Australia informed France only hours before pulling out of the $66 billion deal for French diesel-powered submarines, according to Paris. 

But Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday that Canberra had “deep and grave” concerns about the French submarines and that Paris was aware of these misgivings. 

In the upcoming call with Biden, Macron will demand “clarifications”, political adviser Stéphane Séjourné said on Tuesday, adding it would not be “a reconciliation talk”.

He said the way the French-Australian deal was cancelled raised many questions, “including about the concept of what it means to be an ally of the Americans”.

Behind the scuppered contract were deeper differences about strategies in the Indo-Pacific, he said.

France, which has a presence in the region through overseas territories such as New Caledonia, has been trying to calm down tensions in the area. But “the United States is in more of a confrontation with China”, Séjourné said.

‘Bad news’ for Australia

French defence ministry spokesman Hervé Grandjean wrote on Twitter that the reneged deal was “bad news” for Australia.

“The first Attack submarines were to be delivered by 2030. With this new AUKUS partnership, it will be more like 2040. That’s a long time, when you see how fast China is militarising,” he said.

European ministers rallied around France as the submarines dispute threatened to delay trade talks with Washington and Canberra.

German Europe Minister Michael Roth said France’s diplomatic crisis with the US was a “wake-up call for all of us” to unite an EU often divided on foreign and security policy.

French submarine maker Naval Group has started talks about a financial settlement with Canberra,  the French defence ministry said.

Naval Group had already completed €900 million ($1.1 billion) worth of work on the submarines, it said, but suffered no losses as the work was covered by Australian payments already made.

But calling the pullout “a betrayal”, the ministry said the talks would now determine the size of “compensations and damages” owed by Australia.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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