Australia–France dialogue requires Pacific involvement
19 Feb 2014|

A French soldier and Australian officer help land a LARC at Poum, New Caledonia during Exercise Croix du Sud 2008. Independence movements in French territories in the Pacific have the potential to affect closer Australia-France defence cooperation in the region.

In their recent Strategist posts, Anthony Bergin and Peter Jennings propose closer defence cooperation between Australia and France, following the ASPI Australia–France Defence and Industry Dialogue.

But surprisingly, both authors are largely silent about the regional political context, even though the future of France’s Pacific dependencies is high on the agenda of organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

Peter Jennings says ‘the business of strategy is to look to the future’, but there’s no mention of looming political developments in New Caledonia and French Polynesia that could affect Australia–France relations.

Regional defence cooperation might be complicated by a range of factors:

  • France’s decision, following its 2008 Defence White Paper, to relocate military forces from French Polynesia to New Caledonia as part of its global defence restructuring
  • even as the Rudd government signed a Joint Statement of Strategic Partnership with France in 2012, Fiji and Papua New Guinea (both members of the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation) worked with the Non-Aligned Movement to promote self-determination for French Polynesia
  • in May 2013, the United Nations General Assembly decided to re-inscribe French Polynesia on its list of non-self-governing territories, opening the way for increased international scrutiny of France’s colonial policy in the region
  • the parliament chosen in New Caledonia’s May 2014 elections will have a crucial role in deciding New Caledonia’s future political status, with the incoming Congress to decide whether to proceed to a referendum on self-determination.

In an interview during his September 2008 visit to Australia, then French Defence Minister Hervé Morin said:

France is in the process of restructuring its defence capabilities and we have decided that New Caledonia will become a major presence and major base in the Pacific. We decided to do this because New Caledonia is close to Australia and for us this base in New Caledonia will be the means through which we will grow our cooperation with Australia.

However at the time, a key leader of New Caledonia’s independence movement Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) stated he’s ‘fundamentally opposed’ to French military restructuring in the region, and ‘astonished’ about the lack of consultation from Australia and New Zealand as they forge closer ties to the French military. As the Australia France Defence Co-Operation Agreement came into force in 2009, Kanak independence leader Roch Wamytan told me: ‘Australia and New Zealand have long supported us on our path to emancipation. So I’m really astonished that [they] are engaged in this without even talking to us’.

I’d suggest it’s dangerous for Australia’s strategic policy community to advocate closer security ties with France without a deeper analysis of how our Pacific neighbours regard this policy (especially this year, when the Melanesian Spearhead Group is chaired by Victor Tutugoro, the spokesman of New Caledonia’s FLNKS independence coalition). With ASPI and the Lowy Institute deeply engaged in discussion with French officials, there’s a danger that Australian think tanks are undervaluing the perspectives of our Melanesian neighbours at a time of significant change in the French Pacific.

Australia could easily end up backing French colonial policy, as occurred under the previous ALP government when Canberra didn’t support the re-inscription of French Polynesia at the United Nations. In 2012, former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles told me in an interview: ‘We absolutely take our lead from France on this’. In contrast, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu have lobbied various forums for French Polynesia’s re-inscription.

Anthony Bergin highlights the potential for humanitarian and maritime cooperation by the FRANZ treaty partners. But what if the French military are once again deployed in the region to defend French sovereignty, as they were in the 1980s during the violent clashes in New Caledonia known as Les Evénements?

The belief in Canberra that New Caledonia’s Nouméa Accord process will run smoothly to its conclusion needs to be tested, rather than just assumed as the basis for policy-making. With sharp political differences emerging over the best way to determine New Caledonia’s future political status, the role of the French military may become more contentious, especially as senior commanders have talked about the military’s ongoing role in the Pacific into future decades.

With the Australian Defence Force considering use of French military installations in New Caledonia, will they become ‘facts on the ground’ as New Caledonians seek to lessen the influence of Paris in the South Pacific? Does a strategic partnership between Australia and France involve the ongoing presence of French military forces in the Pacific territories, even after independence? Will closer ties between Canberra and Paris—driven by a global agenda on Afghanistan, counterterrorism and arms sales—be welcomed by our Melanesian neighbours if the French government backtracks on its support for the Nouméa Accord?

As New Caledonia moves towards a decision on its future political status, these are fundamental questions for Australia, New Zealand and other Forum member countries. ASPI and other think tanks may wish to consider a security dialogue that extends beyond French defence and foreign affairs officials.

Nic Maclellan is a correspondent with Islands Business magazine (Fiji) and co-author of La France dans le Pacifique – de Bougainville à Moruroa (Editions La Découverte, Paris) and After Moruroa – France in the South Pacific (Ocean Press, New York and Melbourne). Image credit to Australian Defence Image Library.