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In French-Australian submarine deal, broader political and strategic context mattered

In French-Australian submarine deal, broader political and strategic context mattered
Published 28 Apr 2016   Follow @BrunoTertrais

Economic good news is rare these days for the current French Government. So earlier this week, when the announcement that Canberra had chosen the French option for what was termed in Paris the 'contract of the century', it made headlines throughout the day in French media.

President Hollande himself made an impromptu visit to the headquarters of DCNS, the French submarine company. It was reported that DCNS would have a share of about €8 billion of the contract and that it would create some 4000 jobs in France (3000 for DCNS and 1000 for its subcontractors).

Coming on the heels of an unprecedented string of major contracts for the French aerospace industry, notably with Indian and several Arab countries, this victory for Paris validated the Hollande team's approach of a better organised and more patient approach to major arms deals.  

This success will undoubtedly comfort the French naval industry, perhaps also increasing the chances for other export successes (Norway is said to be interested in French subs). Incidentally, the improvement of DCNS's financial health may also ensure that the timeline for producing the next generation of French submarines — after the Barracuda will come a new class of SSBNs — will not be hindered by industrial and employment considerations.

Both Canberra and Paris understandably focused their initial comments on the economic dimension of the decision and the concrete domestic consequences in Australia and in France, and there is every reason to believe that these considerations — rather than international politics — were paramount in Australia's decision.

I would argue, however, that the broader political and strategic context of the bilateral relationship mattered, and, perhaps more importantly, that the submarine contract will cement and broaden this relationship. [fold]

'It's a 50-year marriage', said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on French radio. Paris wants such mega-contracts to be based on a strategic partnership and not only on purely commercial interests. But the reality is that Australia and France were already engaged in this way. A leading Australian defense contractor, Thales Australia, is a parent company to Thales, which itself has has a 35% share in DCNS.

As is well-known, Paris is one of Canberra's only military partners in the region (this author remembers a conversation in Nouméa, New Caledonia 10 years ago with a senior Australian officer, who was keen to tell him 'We really like having you in the Pacific region'). While the long-term future of a French presence east of Australia will be partly determined by the 2018 referendum in New Caledonia, there is no doubt that Paris will continue to be a key military partner for Canberra. Currently, French forces in the Pacific region include two frigates, five maritime patrol aircraft, as well as helicopters and land forces, based in Nouméa and in Papeetee. In the Indian Ocean, another two frigates are based in La Réunion, one of several French territories there. France also claims a minor share of the Antarctic continent.  

There's also the fact that Canberra and Paris probably never have had a better and closer political relationship. The removal of the longstanding obstacle of French nuclear tests — the last of which took place exactly 20 years ago — helped improve it. In the past decade, several active Australian ambassadors have played an important role in ensuring that Australia is well-placed on the Parisian 'mental map' (the fact that the terrace of the Australian ambassador's residence is one of the best places to watch the Bastille Day fireworks has not hurt). Attendance of the ANZAC Day celebrations in Villers-Bretonneux has been an eye-opener for many French politicians, officials and experts regarding the depth of Australian feelings towards French soil. It was not only for commercial reasons that Jean-Yves Le Drian had decided to attend the 2016 celebration and deliver a speech there.

The successful 1.5 track annual strategic dialogue, held since 2010 under the auspices of the Lowy Institute and the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, has revealed how close the two countries's strategic worldviews are. They share, inter alia: an alliance with the US, but a strong desire for independence (and occasional doubts about the long-term future of US extended deterrence); defiance vis-à-vis Chinese ambitions in Asia (despite their wishes to maintain good relations with Beijing); and a strong concern for jihadist terrorism and the influence of ISIS in Australian and French youth. 

The French submarine model proposed to Australia is an offshoot of the domestic Barracuda program, which will give birth to the six French Suffren-class SSNs entering service between 2017 and 2028. Although the Australian versions (temporarily named Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A) will enter service later than the French ones, the contract will make the French and Australian navies 'sisters'. There is no doubt that the addition of industrial and operational naval links between the two countries will increase their cooperation and mutual understanding. France sometimes feels lonely in Europe when discussing interests in what Australian rightly calls the Indo-Pacific region. It is glad to have a strong partner for the coming decades.

It may not stop there. Given France's excellent defense relations with India, there may be a future for a 'French component' in the Australian-Japan-India strategic triangle.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.

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