Anthony Albanese has shrugged off a fresh declaration from the French president that the Aukus submarine deal risks a nuclear confrontation with China, while confirming Australia will not support Taiwan’s entry into a key regional trade pact.
Speaking to reporters in Bangkok ahead of his Apec program on Friday, Albanese said Emmanuel Macron was “entitled to put forward the views he does in a very forthright way” and said there was no rift between him and the French president.
Macron had earlier told journalists Australia persisting with Aukus risked “nuclear confrontation” and he said the former prime minister Scott Morrison had also made himself “completely dependent by deciding to equip themselves with a submarine fleet that the Australians are incapable of producing and maintaining in-house.”
While the French president’s broadside was directed at Morrison, support for the Aukus pact is bipartisan. Albanese said Macron had acknowledged in his remarks that “Australia has not decided to change strategy on the submarines”.
Morrison’s decision to proceed with Aukus and dump a $90bn contract to supply diesel submarines from French manufacturer Naval Group sparked a furious diplomatic row with Macron which culminated in the French president declaring Morrison had lied to him on the sidelines of last year’s G20 in Rome.
As Albanese swatted away any suggestion of discord with Macron, the prime minister was also asked whether he would support Taiwan’s entry to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in the light of his cautious rapprochement with China’s president, Xi Jinping.
Taiwan is a participant in the Apec summit. Albanese said Taiwan had not sought a meeting with Australia while the prime minister is in Bangkok.
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Albanese said Taiwan would not join the CPTPP because it was “a relationship between nation states” and Taipei was represented at Apec as an economy, not a nation, which is how the summit designates participants.
The shadow trade minister Simon Birmingham said Albanese “doesn’t seem to know or understand that Taiwan participates in the World Trade Organization as a full member, equal to any other.”
“It’s membership of the CPTPP shouldn’t be tied to its statehood status but considered on the merits of extending the agreement, the importance of maintaining unity among existing members and whether it can meet the high standards of the agreement,” Birmingham said.
He called on Albanese to clarify his “erroneous explanation”.
The Apec summit is the final leg of Albanese’s regional trip which started with the Asean and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh last weekend, followed by the G20 in Bali. As well as making interventions during the opening sessions of the summit on Friday, Albanese will meet the president of the Philippines on the sidelines in Bangkok.
Albanese met the US president Joe Biden in Cambodia and will also meet the vice-president Kamala Harris for a sit-down meeting in Bangkok. Biden returned to the US after the G20 to attend a family event.
Albanese has canvassed interim solutions to boost Australia’s defence capability with Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and Macron in a flurry of private meetings on the sidelines of the G20 and East Asia summits.
The government has engaged the former chief of the Australian defence force Sir Angus Houston and former Labor defence minister Stephen Smith to work on a defence strategic review that will spell out the capability needed by Australia to respond to security threats in the Indo-Pacific as China pursues its military buildup and becomes more active in the region.
As well as that review, Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead is the head of a taskforce that is working with counterparts in the US and the UK to advise the government on how to deliver the Aukus project.
Albanese made it clear on Friday France would not be supplying submarines to address the capability gap courtesy of the long delivery date of the nuclear-powered submarines. But he said the two countries would cooperate in other ways on military capability.
The November summit season has delivered a number of important diplomatic successes for Albanese, now six months into his prime ministership.
The prime minister paid tribute to the efforts of his foreign minister, Penny Wong, in building the linkages that have enabled the key breakthroughs this week – the first bilateral meeting with the Chinese president since 2016 and the release of Australian academic Sean Turnell from a Myanmar prison.
Albanese was asked to reflect on his first summit season and share his key takeaways. “Australia is back,” the prime minister told reporters. “Australia is back around the table.”
“Australia is engaged. We are having positive and constructive discussions with our historic allies, but with everyone in the region as well”.
Albanese noted it was a sign of reciprocity and goodwill in the region that he had been invited to deliver the opening intervention of the plenary session at Apec on Friday. Albanese will remain in Bangkok until Saturday night before flying home to Australia for the final two parliamentary sitting weeks of the year.