Perfidious Albion – F.S. Aijazuddin


“AN ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie and intrigue for the benefit of his country,” the British diplomat Sir Henry Wotton said over 400 years ago. What Wotton had not anticipated was a situation where ambassadors would be lied to by their host countries.

When, last week, the French government discovered that its deal with Australia worth $37 billion, signed in 2016, to build 12 conventional submarines had been scuttled by the US, UK and Australia, its Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian fumed publicly: “There has been lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt.” That this ‘stab in the back’ was by three English-speaking allied countries broadened in French minds the definition of ‘Perfidious Albion’ beyond only Great Britain.

France retaliated angrily. It took the ext­reme step in diplomacy: it recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. It left its ambassador in London, dismissing Britain as “a junior player”, voicelessly rem­inding Whitehall of Winston Churchill’s cutting adage: “Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room.”

The freshly spun AUKUS alliance betw­een the US, the UK and Australia is a gossamer attempt to contain China to counter its prickly presence in the South China Sea. To the Chinese, nothing could be more short-term in its effect. They have waited over 70 years and will wait as long again for Taiwan to return to the motherland. After all, it took the Taliban only 20 years to oust the US, the UK and Australia forces (AUKUS under a different banner) from Afghanistan. The Chinese have other priorities. They will be sagacious in their response to this latest provocation.

Is France protesting too much?

Meanwhile, the Australians are at pains to explain that the French deal which involved production of conventional submarines in Australia was flawed from the start and had suffered from cost overruns and delays. The new AUKUS submarines would be more efficient, nuclear-powered, although no one has admitted yet that they could (and will) carry nuclear warheads, aimed at China.

AUKUS is a belated successor to ANZUS — the treaty signed in 1951 between the US, Australia and New Zealand “to protect the security of the Pacific”. AUKUS balances on a similar premise. It plans to make Australia another South Korea in the region.

Has anyone, though, in the Aussie Department of Defence factored in the twin loyalties of the Sino-Australian community? Today, there are 1.2 million persons of Chinese origin living in Australia, almost six per cent of its population of 26m. “Per capita, Australia has more people of Chinese ancestry than any country outside Asia.”

One day (sooner perhaps than white Australians fear) a Chinese-Australian will become prime minister in Canberra. After all, Canada with a population of only 500,000 Sikhs has already fielded a turbaned challenger to Justin Trudeau.

Many who are familiar with sub-surface submarine deals will wonder whether the French are protesting too much, considering the ploys they themselves used to market their Agosta 90-B submarines.

Like stealthy submarines, such transactions remain submerged until their presence is exposed and they are forced to surface and reveal themselves. No one knows this better than the Pakistan Navy.

In 1994, a contract worth $996m was signed by Benazir Bhutto’s government with French president François Mitterrand’s for the supply of three “expensive and complex” Agosta submarines, even though they were still “in the prototype phase” and would take years to manufacture. The French offered generous credits, lubricated by commissions of 6.25pc of the contract value paid to Pakistani politicia­­ns and service personnel. Such sweeteners were legal in France in those days, and de rigeur in Pakistan.

It has been suggested that the bombing of a bus in Karachi killing 11 French engineers in May 2002 was the disgruntled retaliation by dis-appointees after the cancellation of their commissions by Mitterrand’s less flexible successor Jacques Chirac.

The former naval chief Admiral Mansurul Haq, whose name surfaced in the investigations of corruption and kick-backs on the Agosta deal, fled to Austin (Texas), from where he was extradited by the US to Pakis­tan. He negotiated a settlement with NAB in 2003-5, sharing with it $7.5m (“enough to pay the salaries of the entire Pakistan navy for two years”) and, when squeezed further, apparently disgorged another $2.5m.

The arms industry worldwide is a lucrative Mafia-style business. “War is a racket,” the First World War veteran Maj-Gen Smedley Butler wrote. “It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” After spending 33 years in service, Butler admitted that he saw himself less as a twice-decorated war hero than as “a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism”.

One wonders which lubricant has been used to smoothen the launch of this AUKUS deal. The experienced French have their suspicions.

The writer is an author.