Scott Morrison has doubled down on Australia’s decision to ditch a multi-billion dollar French submarine contract, contradicting Joe Biden’s claims about whether Emmanuel Macron was informed about the move.
Speaking to reporters at the G20 summit in Rome on Saturday, the prime minister insisted Australia had made “the right decision” by ditching the French submarine contract, even though his management of the fracas has infuriated the French president and prompted an implicit public rebuke from Joe Biden.
Morrison insisted he had kept the Biden administration up to date “with the status of the conversations and discussions with the French government”.
But Morrison’s account contradicts an observation from Biden during a meeting with Macron ahead of the G20 summit.
The US president told Macron, with television cameras present, that he was “under the impression that France had been informed” about Australia’s intention to ditch a $90bn contract with the French Naval Group “long before” the Aukus nuclear powered submarine pact was revealed publicly.
France has declared it was “betrayed”, “stabbed in the back” and “deceived” over Australia’s decision to dump the French-backed submarine project worth up to $A90bn (£48bn).
It was unclear whether Biden’s rebuke – which included an observation that the handling of the issue had been “clumsy” – was directed at Morrison, or at his own senior staff. Australian officials suggest Biden’s staff did not keep the president in the loop.
Asked whether the US president had effectively thrown him under the bus, Morrison declared Australia had made the right decision to enter the Aukus agreement with the US and the United Kingdom and “we don’t recoil from that at all”.
“Australia made the right decision in our interests to ensure we had the right submarine capability to deal with our strategic interests,” the prime minister told reporters.
“There was never an easy way for us I think to get to a point where we had to disappoint a friend and partner – it was a difficult decision, but for Australia, it was the right decision”.
The rolling row over submarines has followed Morrison from Canberra to Rome. Saturday was the Australian prime minister’s first face-to-face interaction with Macron since the diplomatic eruption over the cancelation of the Naval Group contract.
Macron has scheduled a number of bilateral meetings with leaders during the G20 summit, but not with Australia. The two saw one another briefly and informally before an official photograph of G20 leaders.
Morrison says Covid origins must be found
Morrison used his opening remarks at the G20 summit to declare the world needs to identify the origins of Covid-19 in order to provide the best protection against another deadly pandemic.
He said an inquiry was not “about blame, but about understanding how it came about”.
“We not only need to end this pandemic, we also need to make sure we don’t have another one,” Morrison said on Saturday. “We also need enhanced surveillance, and a stronger, more independent and more transparent World Health Organization”.
The Australian government’s call early in the pandemic for independent investigators to be allowed into Wuhan to investigate the origins of the virus infuriated Beijing, and was one of the factors behind a significant deterioration in the China relationship.
On Saturday at the G20, the prime minister said Australia supported a recommendation of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response to give the WHO broad power to investigate pathogens with pandemic potential “in all countries, without prior approval”.
Australia’s prime minister also met with the Indonesian president Joko Widodo. The two leaders canvassed regional concerns about the potential for the controversial Aukus submarine pact to accelerate a regional arms race.
As well as French fury about the submarine snub, Indonesia and Malaysia have been concerned about Aukus. Regional neighbours are worried it could breach Australia’s longstanding commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. But Australian officials believe the initial concerns have largely been ameliorated.
During Saturday’s conversation with the Indonesian president, Morrison flagged the desire of Australians to return to Bali now restrictions around international travel were easing.
Ahead of the Cop26 summit where Australia is expected to pursue more technology partnerships and unveil funding for projects in the region, Morrison and Widodo also discussed, according to Australian officials, how technology will “play a pivotal role in addressing climate change, particularly in the developing world”.