Foreign Minister Penny Wong and French counterpart Catherine Colonna.
Foreign Affairs Penny Wong and her French counterpart Catherine Colonna have struck a defence pact. Image by Anthony Albanese Peta Murphy Statement/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

Australia and France strike defence pact on base access

Dominic Giannini December 4, 2023

Australian soldiers will have greater access to French military bases in the Pacific region and Indian Ocean under a new defence pact.

The agreement will also increase access to Australian defence facilities for French troops, with more complex military drills to be undertaken by the two nations.

The deal forms part of a bilateral road map unveiled after Foreign Minister Penny Wong hosted French counterpart Catherine Colonna in Canberra on Monday.

“The Indo-Pacific is a top priority for France,” Ms Colonna said in a joint press conference after the meeting.

“We are a nation of the Pacific, we are determined to step up, beef up co-operation with partners in the region.”

France also aims to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean, working with both India and Australia to maintain peace as tensions rise.

Ms Colonna also reflected on freedom of navigation drills that have sparked tensions between Australian and Chinese navies.

“As far as China is concerned, we stand with our allies and partners, especially when they face unkindly behaviours,” she said.

The Australia-France road map sets out plans for a centre of excellence in the Indo-Pacific, to encourage study and knowledge of the region and its most pressing challenges.

There will also be greater co-operation on critical minerals through policy discussions and market development, as Western nations try to shore up supply chains with China dominating the mineral processing industry.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna at the National Press Club.
 French Minister Catherine Colonna said our approach to China should not be “one of us and them”. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

It was important to send Beijing a message the West was not trying to confine its economic growth and nations in the region should not be forced to choose between superpowers, the French foreign minister said.

Nations needed to stand against any changes to the international order, including by China, with Taiwan emerging as a potential flashpoint, she told the National Press Club before the ministerial meeting.

“We know who our friends are and we know where the threat comes from,” she said. 

“Our approach should not be a binary one of us or them, but one of inclusiveness and solidarity deeply rooted in increased co-operation.”

France is looking to re-establish a stronger presence in the region as other European nations come up with their own Pacific strategies, amid concerns over the rise of China.

The Australia-France relationship deteriorated under former Liberal prime minister Scott Morrison after he pulled the pin on a multi-billion dollar submarine contract in favour of a US nuclear-powered design.

The deal underpinned the creation of the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the UK and US.

Crew members of a US Virginia-class nuclear powered submarine.
 Australia’s relationship with France worsened over a decision to choose US submarines over French. Image by Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS 

It hit rock bottom when French President Emmanuel Macron asserted, “I don’t think, I know”, when he was asked if Mr Morrison lied to him about the deal.

“We took note of a decision by a friend – Australia – to make a sovereign decision,” Ms Colonna said.

“But we decided to move on, so let’s move on. This is what we did with a visit of Prime Minister (Anthony) Albanese to Paris.”