Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Tuesday he regrets being unable to secure a contract to have Japan help develop Australia’s new class of submarine, according to local media reports.

During an event at the Japanese Embassy in Canberra, Abbott expressed disappointment over his successor Malcolm Turnbull’s decision in April 2016 to award the A$50 billion ($35 billion) contract to a French state-owned shipbuilder.

“The bonds between Australia and Japan are closer than ever, our economic relationship is extremely strong, our people-to-people is strong and growing, and obviously the defense and security relationship is growing all the time,” Abbott said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“I regret, ambassador, that we were unable in my time in government to establish a submarine partnership but, nevertheless, I do believe the defense and security relationship is getting stronger and stronger.”

Attendees included Japanese Ambassador Reiichiro Takahashi, senior figures in the Australian defense forces, as well as the ambassadors of the United States and France.

The Abbott government launched a competitive evaluation process in 2015 between Japan, France and Germany to build Australia’s next submarine fleet, replacing the navy’s aging Collins-class submarines.

In September that year, however, Abbott lost to Turnbull in the ruling Liberal Party’s leadership race, ceding the premiership to his rival.

Japan, which had hoped to provide Maritime Self-Defense Force Soryu-class diesel-electric submarine technology, was reportedly deeply disappointed with the Turnbull government’s decision to award the contract to France.

The comments, made at a reception commemorating the 65th anniversary of the establishment of the Self-Defense Forces, were Abbott’s first public remarks since his retirement from politics following his loss of his long-held parliamentary seat in the May general election.

Later in his speech, the former prime minister described Japan as an “exemplary international citizen,” and suggested Australia would benefit from Tokyo taking a more significant role in regional security.

“Now it’s not for me to give advice to the Japanese government, or indeed any other government,” Abbott said, according to the Australian Financial Review newspaper.

“But if in the years to come the strength and reach of Japan were to grow, if Japan were to choose to take a bigger role in the security of the region and the wider world, I think that would be good for Australia and the wider world and the rule of law.”

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