French colonialism in the Blue Pacific

France holds on to its island pearls

Nic Maclellan

Trade and industry, International relations, National security | Australia, The Pacific, The World

24 May 2018

The strategic interests of Australia, France and its South Pacific dependencies are not necessarily aligned, Nic Maclellan argues.

The recent visit to Australia and New Caledonia by French President Emmanuel Macron highlights France’s economic and strategic interests in the Pacific islands. The Macron government is actively seeking to influence regional policy on the ‘Blue Pacific’ – a new regional policy framework for the oceans promoted by the Pacific Islands Forum.

France’s renewed regional diplomacy comes as Australia is seeking western allies against growing Chinese influence in the region. Downplaying historic support for decolonisation, the Turnbull government is working to reinforce France’s standing as a colonial power in the Pacific.

The 2016 decision to include the French dependencies of New Caledonia and French Polynesia as full members of the Pacific Islands Forum raises a series of diplomatic challenges for independent island countries, as they seek to develop the region’s vast ocean resources. This integration of non-self-governing territories into an organisation of independent and sovereign nations poses new problems for Pacific regionalism.

More on this: Macron trip a chance for Australia and France to sing in tune

Under the concept of the ‘Blue Pacific’, island nations are placing increased priority on the oceans, seeking to integrate policy on climate change, maritime security, fisheries and ocean biodiversity. The Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, has said that “the Blue Pacific provides a new narrative for Pacific regionalism and how the Forum engages with the world.”

This regional agenda greatly affects France, which controls a vast maritime domain in the Pacific. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, France controls 11 million square kilometres of overseas Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – of this, more than seven million are located in the Pacific Ocean.

A 2014 report from the French Senate highlights the importance of maintaining colonial rule to access this vast maritime zone: “Thanks to its overseas possessions, France is one of the countries affected – indeed the most affected – by this revolution in sharing the oceans. Its EEZ is in fact the second largest behind that of the United States and beyond this, the most diverse. Present in both hemispheres and at all points of the compass, the French EEZ is the only one on which the sun never sets.”

The Australian Government welcomes this presence in the Pacific. However, under the Statement of Enhanced Strategic Partnership of March 2017 and the latest Vision Statement on the Australia-France Relationship, the relationship between Canberra and Paris is increasingly global rather than regional. The concerns of the Kanak and Maohi peoples in the French territories rank relatively low in comparison to wider strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of China’s growing influence.

More on this: What should we make of the ‘Indo-Pacific’?

Canberra’s interests are largely defence-driven, highlighted by the purchase of French-designed submarines and promotion of French involvement in the Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group. The Australia-France Defence Co-operation Agreement and a new Mutual Logistics Support Agreement allow logistics support between the two defence forces and intelligence sharing with the French military.

But conflating ‘Indo-Pacific’ concerns with France’s colonial presence in the South Pacific is misleading. There are vast distances between French bases in Noumea and Tahiti and potential hotspots in East Asia. French forces in New Caledonia are primarily deployed for domestic rather than regional roles and would be of little use in the South China Sea. The notion that the French Pacific collectivities are a bulwark against Chinese expansionism is undercut by the way that local governments in Noumea and Papeete are eagerly seeking Chinese grants and investment.

France is competing with other Asian and European nations to exploit marine resources, including fisheries, deep sea oil and gas, seabed minerals and marine biodiversity.

With the French state controlling sovereignty over its Pacific EEZs, this maritime resource exploitation will become a major battleground in the 21st century. Independence movements in New Caledonia and French Polynesia are actively asserting their rights under international law over these marine resources. This clash looms as a tension for Blue Pacific policy within the Pacific Islands Forum.

More on this: How committed is France to the Pacific?

Some Pacific fisheries officials have also raised concerns that confidential positions on the management and conservation of tuna have been compromised with the effective inclusion of France – through its Pacific territories – in the membership of the Forum Fisheries Agency. France has ongoing maritime boundary disputes with Forum island countries, such as the longstanding dispute with Vanuatu over Matthew Island and Hunter Island.

French officials constantly refer to ‘shared sovereignty’ with the Pacific colonies in the 21st century. But France retains crucial control over defence, foreign affairs, currency, the judiciary and maritime boundaries.

Even as full Forum members, both New Caledonia and French Polynesia are still listed as non-self-governing territories with the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation. Their lack of international standing constrains their engagement as equal partners with other states. They cannot sign key international treaties on oceans and climate, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Meanwhile, the French state is acting to reinforce its own strategic interests in the oceans. The enhanced strategic partnership between France and Australia – the largest Forum member – assists this process. This raises questions over the priority given to decolonisation, especially as New Caledonia moves towards a referendum on self-determination in November this year.

This article is based on the author’s recent paper in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, ‘France and the Blue Pacific’. All articles in the journal are free to read and download.

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