France, Australia announce artillery deal for Ukraine
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France, Australia announce artillery deal for Ukraine

Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles speaks next to French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.
Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles speaks next to French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.

PARIS - France and Australia announced a deal to jointly produce 155 mm artillery shells for Ukraine on Monday after a ministerial meeting in Paris that showcased efforts to relaunch ties between the Pacific allies.

The artillery deal is a small but symbolic step by the two nations after a bitter row two years ago when former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison tore up a contract to buy submarines from France.

"Several thousand 155 mm shells will be manufactured jointly," French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu said at a joint press conference with his Australian counterpart Richard Marles, as well as the countries' foreign ministers.

"There are some unique capabilities that exist in Australia and some synergies that can be achieved by Australia and France working together in relation to the supply of this ammunition," Marles said.

The deal will see both countries share the cost of the deliveries of the ammunition from French manufacturer Nexter, with Australia to provide the explosive powder, Lecornu added.

All four ministers were keen to stress that they had moved on from the 2021 row that saw Australia abandon diesel-powered French submarines in favour of nuclear-powered ones from the United States and Britain.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna declared in her opening remarks that it was a "subject I will not be returning to", but the row was frequently alluded to by both sides.

A change in government in Australia, where centre-left Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took over from the conservative Morrison in May last year, has enabled both sides to talk up a fresh start.

Albanese travelled to Paris in July where he pledged to act with "trust, respect and honesty" in his dealings with French President Emmanuel Macron.

"I think the personal warmth between the four of us really characterises in a perfect way the return of warmth to the bilateral relationship between Australia and France," Marles told reporters on Monday.

- Pacific tensions -

France considers itself a Pacific power, thanks to its overseas territories including New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and observers say better relations with Australia would help it assert influence there.

Australia is desperate for democratic allies in the region at a time when China's assertiveness around the Pacific is causing wide concern and ties with Beijing are emerging from a deep-freeze.

The two nations held their first formal summit in more than five years last November after years of animosity that hampered once-close trade ties.

"France is a liberal democracy in the Indo-Pacific which shares a vision of the globe which is governed by a global rules-based order," Marles said.

"And in that sense, as our closest neighbour, France is really in the very top tier of relationships that Australia has with any country."

The ministers were asked about a recent internal memo from a four-star US Air Force general who warned his staff that a conflict between the United States and China could take place as early as 2025 –- most likely over Taiwan.

"It's critical for humanity that we do not allow the competition between great powers to escalate into conflict," Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong told reporters.

The talks in Paris also covered joint efforts to combat climate change, with France pledging to support Australia's bid to host the COP31 climate talks in 2026.

Other areas identified for cooperation include the space industry and a joint investment in a port project in Papua New Guinea at a time when Western countries are seeking to compete with China's infrastructure financing in the Pacific region.

- Submarines -

There was no sign of any change in Australia's intention of buying the US-designed nuclear submarines despite concerns about long delays.

In November, Macron said his country's submarine offer "remains on the table", a day after meeting with Albanese at a G20 summit in Indonesia.

The submarines would be conventional, not nuclear, and built in Australia, Macron said, with the vessels potentially offering Australia new capabilities while it waits for its nuclear fleet.

Marles said "there are no plans for any conventionally powered interim submarine capability as we move towards gaining the nuclear-powered submarine capability which we are working towards."

Marles are Wong are due to travel on to London after their stop in Paris to hold talks with their British counterparts.

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