top of page

Non, merci. Put un sock in it please, Mr Macron – by Peter Jennings for The Australian – 24.11.22

In just two brief statements, Emmanuel Macron delivered four political sleights of hand designed to undermine Australia’s nuclear submarine plan. And China’s propaganda machine is relishing every word.

Emmanuel Macron meets Anthony Albanese on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali on November 16. Picture: AFP

Emmanuel Macron’s G20 outbursts last week over Australia’s nuclear submarine ambitions should highlight for Anthony ­Albanese the fickle nature of international political friendships. The Prime Minister has enough self-awareness to realise the French President’s embrace is the Gallic version of a hug from the Solomons’ Manasseh Sogavare: not something to relish.

I count four sleights of hand from Macron, impressive in two brief statements. His comments aren’t pure deceptions, more just political flimflam from a leader still smarting from Scott Morrison’s decision to walk away from the French-designed submarine program in 2021.

One assertion is that France had been helping Australia achieve “freedom and sovereignty” through the submarine deal, because Australia would have the ability to “produce and maintain” the boats in-country.

This is apart from the fact the design and technology were French, the weapons American and that at best 40 per cent of the equipment would come from overseas. France was not beneficently handing us autonomy. The intention was to build a strategic partnership that would last half a century or longer.


Second, there is the suggestion that a conventionally powered submarine is benign “and it is not confrontational to China because they are not nuclear-powered submarines”. But remember, the selling point of the so-called Attack-class boats was that they were “regionally superior conventional submarines” able to take the fight to the most sophisticated potential enemy, which for Australian planning means China.

A “non-confrontational submarine” is like a slow racing car. If that is what Paris sells, it will not thrill Pakistan, Chile, Malaysia, India or Brazil, all of which have imported or are building French Scorpene-class conventional boats.

Up until the moment that the Attack-class submarines were scuppered, the Australian position was that these boats would meet our strategic requirements. Since then, Defence has said: “An assessment provided to government through a capability review process was that nuclear-powered submarines were the only option that could meet Australia’s defence requirements over the coming decades.”

That judgment might have been influenced by Joe Biden’s remarkable decision, with the UK, to allow Australia a pathway towards nuclear propulsion. Had the US President not taken that step, which some in the American security establishment question, Australia would even now be developing conventionally powered submarines.

One of the US’s Virginia-class nuclear submarines. Picture: File

Macron’s third sleight of hand is the most damaging. It is to claim the decision to go for ­nuclear propulsion is one that is “re-entering into nuclear confrontation”. The country being confronted is China. Macron is right to assume Beijing would prefer Australia to stay with conventionally powered boats, not because that would be good for regional stability, but because it would give the Chinese Navy an unassailable edge.

It would be hard to think of a more unhelpful intervention from a leader of a country professing a close strategic partnership with Australia.

Macron’s comments were made last Thursday and added to on Friday, immediately after Albanese held his brief meeting with Xi Jinping on Wednesday. On Friday, Wang Qun, Beijing’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Vienna, argued at a meeting of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency that the nuclear propulsion proposed under AUKUS risked leading to nuclear weapons proliferation.

This is diplomatic nonsense promoted by China to weaken Australia’s position internationally. Having examined the case, the IAEA is having no part of it. Australia is going out of its way to work with the agency to demonstrate our focus is on nuclear propulsion, not weapons.

I understand that it might be theoretically possible for an individual to remove weapons-grade plutonium from a submarine’s sealed propulsion reactor, most likely at the price of killing themselves from the radiation.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has defended Australia's decision to acquire nuclear submarines under the AUKUS…

Macron’s raising of “nuclear confrontation” is a gift to Beijing and, predictably, the Chinese Communist Party’s tabloid mouthpiece, The Global Times, latched on to his comments on Saturday, stating: “If Canberra chooses to ignore Beijing’s concerns over AUKUS, the pact will remain a thorn in the side of China-Australia relations. It is also likely to undermine a clear pathway to the healthy development of bilateral ties.”

It followed this yesterday by saying the fact Xi didn’t raise AUKUS in his meeting with Albanese “cannot and should not (be taken) as signs that China is not concerned about the pact”.

Thank you, President Macron, for enabling China’s deceitful narrative and reversing the proposition that Beijing’s task is to make good for years of bullying in the relationship. China’s propaganda machine will go into overdrive to use Macron’s words against Australia at every opportunity.

Let’s put into context that, while Australia hopes to have eight nuclear-propelled submarines at some point in the 2040s, according to the US Defence Department, China will have more than doubled its inventory of nuclear warheads to 700 by 2027.

A footnote to Macron’s comment worth noting is that France has acknowledged operating a nuclear-attack submarine, the SSN Emeraude, in the South China Sea as recently as 2021 while France’s ambassador to Australia told the National Press Club in November 2021: “It is so very remarkable in this context that since March 2020, this Australian government has never consulted with us, at any level, at any time, about a possible ­nuclear-powered option or the merits of nuclear propulsion.”

Sky News host Chris Kenny says French President Emmanuel Macron is still “banging on” about the “dud deal”… Australia pulled out of to purchase submarines. “Have a listen to Macron, still smarting, still denigrating Australia, and also giving us a little hint of that renowned French strategic courage More

Based on my own conversations I can confirm France would likely have agreed to provide nuclear propulsion had we asked. So much for Macron’s concern about nuclear confrontation.

As for Macron’s fourth sleight of hand: he maintains France is still holding open a submarine deal for Australia. He shouldn’t hold his breath.

And so, from bad to worse: last weekend, former New Zealand PM John Key wrote in The Australian that “China is too big to avoid, too important to ignore and, I believe, too sensible to give the world a bad fright”.

Key’s astonishing assessment is that Xi “is vastly popular with his people”. The idea that China might present a cyber or military threat to the Indo-Pacific is just “anti-China rhetoric” beaten up by Donald Trump “on a widespread anti-trade, anti-China campaign”.

Key concludes: “Despite what Trump may peddle, China does not have form when it comes to invading others.”

Tibetans, Uighurs, Vietnamese, Hong Kongers, Indians and claimant countries to the South China Sea would disagree.

Liberal Party Defence and National Security Policy Chair Lincoln Parker says China’s President Xi Jinping is a… “master manipulator” and does what is good for himself and the Chinese Communist Party. “He will go out and say and do whatever it takes whether it’s an outright lie or More

None of China’s actions matter because, “While China will ­always have policies many disagree with, so do most of the nearly 200 countries New Zealand trades with.” Key channels his inner average New Zealander: “If we could just sell a lamb chop to everyone in China, we would run out of sheep.”

Key’s assessment is not connected to analysis of Beijing’s behaviour. We are a long way past the point where Chinese consumer preferences for NZ meat will keep the world at peace.

So it is that NZ PM Jacinda Ardern considers Xi’s invitation to visit China while Albanese stays home.

Regardless of how Beijing behaves, there are sufficient in­ternational leaders happy to overlook obvious strategic trends in pursuit of immediate commercial interests. One can only question their value as long-term strategic partners.

The path of benignly overlooking Beijing’s strategic aims isn’t open to Australia, which is why nuclear propulsion and an urgent need to modernise the defence force will dominate Albanese’s 2023.

For this article in pdf, please click here:

Non, merci
. Put un sock in it please, Mr Macron – by Peter Jennings for The Australian – 2

Peter Jennings was formerly Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and inter-alia, Deputy Secretary for Strategy in the Defence Department.

32 views1 comment
bottom of page