New Caledonia: Old Order Coming Unstuck in South Pacific?
A recent report for the Australian government about New Caledonia has revealed serious concerns about the current military regime in the South Pacific.
The old order on which the Defence of Australia doctrine has rested for decades, is now showing signs of breaking up. The US-led response is taking place, with all the hallmarks of defence and security provision creating a further wave of militarisation across the wider region.
In May, the Lowy Institute published a report, New Caledonia's independence referendum: Local and regional implications. The Sydney-based Lowy Institute, while nominally an independent body, has historically employed large numbers of well-placed personnel from positions of class and state power.
The report about New Caledonia, for example, was written by a former Australian diplomat of thirty years’ experience, including a posting to Noumea as Consul-General and other trouble-spots around the world. A further posting in Washington reveals direct exposure to US-led regional initiatives and the Pentagon. It should be noted the Lowy Institute is a highly influential organisation within the higher echelons of Australian decision-making; the report in question, in fact, carried hallmarks of a briefing paper presented for the Defence Department and military planners.
New Caledonia has the official diplomatic status of a non self-governing territory, remaining under the tutelage of France. Paris wants to keep the country under its control for two main reasons:
*formal geo-political and strategic considerations, which together with other French-controlled Pacific territories, enables France to remain a Pacific power;
*neo-colonial considerations - New Caledonia is rich in minerals and natural resources, and France wants to keep control for economic reasons.
French control of New Caledonia in recent times, however, has been challenged by both internal political initiatives and considerations from elsewhere in the region. A referendum last November, for example, resulted in anti-independence voters winning by only a small margin. While nearly 57 per cent of the electorate voted to maintain the status quo, 43.3 per cent voted for independence. It was a shock result for France. Earlier, in 1958, a similar referendum saw 98 per cent of voters choose to remain under French control.
The problems resulting from the referendum last year were also exacerbated by national elections last month. Anti-independence parties only won by a thin margin, and the traditional governing party, the Caledonia Together Party, had its number of Congress representatives halved in the 54-seat parliament in the face of a strong challenge from pro-independence parties. (1)
Two further independence referendums are possible, following prolonged discussion about future governance, within the next three years. (2)
The old order which brought relative political stability to New Caledonia following violent confrontations between the French and pro-independence Kanaks, a local ethnic minority, during the 1976-88 period would now appear to be showing signs of breaking up. The Noumea Accord, signed in May 1998, which provided thirty years of continued French control of the country, is now being successfully challenged.
The pro-independence process underway in New Caledonia is also being assisted by similar developments elsewhere in the region. Moves toward independence of Bougainville from nearby Papua New Guinea and a growing Papuan independence movement in West Papua, at present occupied by Indonesia, have reawakened independence and politically-progressive sympathies across the wider South Pacific region.
Reading between the lines of the Lowy Institute report it has not been difficult to establish the position of US-led diplomacy toward the emerging problem in New Caledonia.
The three Melanesian countries of PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, have historically formed part of the Defence of Australia (DOA) doctrine, acting as a strategic buffer against possible military incursion to Australian sovereignty from the north shores. The three countries, through a mixture of Papuan ethnic identification and regional political bodies including the Pacific islands Forum and Melanesia Spearhead Group, however, have broader political allegiances, including into New Caledonia.
It has been noted, for example, the 'Pacific Islands Forum and Melanesia Spearhead Group
were created out of concern about French decolonisation policies', and, 'New Caledonia's independence delegations reached out to Vanuatu, French Polynesia and the Melanesia Spearhead Group during the referendum campaign and received a supportive response'. (3)
US-led foreign policy toward the South Pacific has historically relied upon Australia to provide most initiatives toward the region. The role of Australia has evolved throughout the decades following the establishment of the DOA. While previous times saw a great deal of economic support into the South Pacific, today concern has arisen that initiatives lack 'clear policy intent'. (4) A lot of US-led aid programs in the South pacific have not proved particularly successful. In recent times US-led foreign policy has, therefore, been aimed toward transforming 'our relationship with the Pacific'. (5)
Part of the reasoning behind the US-led decision-making has been the re-adoption of Island Chain Theory, a product of the previous Cold War against the Soviet Union, now directed toward China. Fears exist within the Pentagon that the rising power of China has enabled that country to potentially 'project power beyond the second island chain and severely complicate the ability of the US Navy to control Pacific waters of vital strategic influence'. (6)
While US-oriented media releases have acknowledged 'individual South-east Asian countries are drifting into China's orbit and ASEAN has proved incapable of protecting its territorial interests', fears exist of further loss of US influence within the third chain. (7) The shift in US-led regional diplomacy, from largely economic considerations and political influence toward heavy concentration upon military and security provision, has taken place due to acknowledgement that the US was in relative decline 'when faced with the rise of China and others in the region'. (8)
Furthermore, it has also been acknowledged that 'short of war, the US is unlikely to halt the narrowing power differential between itself and China'. (9)
It is against this backcloth that recent developments in New Caledonia have to be viewed as part of a wider Indo-Pacific equation. The Lowy report acknowledged the most notable development in the Pacific was 'China's increasing role', and included a whole sub-section followed by another detailing Australia's position and interests. (10)
Progressive-minded Australian people are likely to find themselves having to recognise credible independence demands in New Caledonia in the next few years. In light of the recent media release from the Defence Department that 'the Trump administration is committed to a broad-based engagement in the Pacific', and, 'working in concert with allies and partners like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France and others', it is perhaps now that discussions should be taking place about solidarity with the independence movements.
The position of the present Australian coalition government has already been quite clear about future US-led military planning for the region. Within days of the shock federal election victory, a media release was issued from Canberra stating 'a commitment to stage more joint military exercises and work more closely with regional partners'. (11)
Australia also needs an independent foreign policy to reduce the likelihood of defence personnel being deployed on spurious regional political stabilisation counter-insurgency-type operations to ensure a continuation of French control of New Caledonia.
1. New Caledonia's provincial elections, The Asia-Pacific Report, 14 May 2019.
2. Regional Implications, New Caledonia's independence referendum: Local and regional implications, The Lowy Institute, May 2019, page 1.
3. Ibid., pp. 17-18.
4. Pacific role 'more than body-blocking Beijing', The Weekend Australian, 11-12 May 2019.
6. Pacific rises into clear US focus, The Weekend Australian, 1-2 June 2019.
7. 'Overhaul nation's defence strategy', to handle China's rise, experts warn, Australian, 15 November 2019.
8. US losing its major player powers in Asia, Australian, 29 May 2019.
10. New Caledonia's independence referendum, op.cit., May 2019, pp. 19-22.
11. Morrison pledges projects for Solomons to counter influence, Australian, 3 June 2019.