Australia’s long dread of France in the South Pacific (part 3)
27 Feb 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user thomasstaub.

Australia’s dread of France in the South Pacific in the 20th century has slowly turned into a new desire—that France stay and play and help pay.

As the quintessential status quo power in the South Pacific, Australia today embraces France as a new bastion of the existing, preferred order. The shift in Canberra’s thinking acknowledges how France has adapted its ways and adopted regionalist colours. No longer is France the feared as the outsider prone to blowing up—both bombs and its own interests.

Australia can embrace France as a fellow status quo power in the South Pacific because this is the region where the colonial powers stayed. Unlike Asia and Africa, decolonisation around here didn’t always equate to departure. Only Britain did a full exit—handing off to Australia and New Zealand as it left.

New Zealand set the decolonising-without-departing model by moving first, showing smarts and creativity. Wellington used a different model for each of its four colonies: Samoa became the first island state to get independence in 1962, with free movement to NZ for 20 years; Cook Islands got self government in 1965 (NZ sharing control of defence and foreign affairs); Niue got self government in free association with NZ in 1974 and Tokelau is a dependent territory of NZ.

Less deftly, but with equal determination, the US managed the same trick: America Samoa is an unincorporated territory, and America has compacts of free association with Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau (although it took eight referendums to get Palau’s compact ratified).

Compared to the Kiwis, France has taken nearly 50 years to decipher the decolonising-without-departure memo; perhaps the longest of long games was the only option, given the baggage Paris carried.

France has already scored a major win in the stay-and-play stakes: full membership of the Pacific Islands Forum. Even before New Caledonia votes next year, the South Pacific has rewarded France for its long game. The Forum last year announced the decision to admit New Caledonia and French Polynesia as full members (they’ve had associate membership since 2006). Two French controlled territories have joined the peak Island club that was created as an expression of Pacific independence.

Nic Maclellan  rightly judges this ‘a momentous change’. The Forum which hammered out much of its identity and cohesion in fighting France, now accepts that ‘France seems to be in the Pacific to stay’. Theo Ell calls Forum membership the prize for ‘a marked change in French Pacific strategy, which was previously strongly individualistic and isolationist’. To normalise and reinforce its presence, Paul Soyez writes, France has embraced South Pacific regionalism, giving Noumea and Papeete enough autonomy to join in.

The Forum is the institutional expression of Australia and New Zealand as insiders, both ‘of’ and ‘in’ the South Pacific. For the Islands, the Forum is a mechanism to manage relations with Australia and New Zealand, as well as other big players outside the South Pacific. Equally, Australia and New Zealand use the Forum as a vehicle not just for regional consensus, but as a mechanism to create and police norms. The nature of the club reflects Island polities which are conservative, pro-Western, capitalist and Christian. That suits Australia wonderfully—as it will France.

France—through New Caledonia and French Polynesia—gets two seats at the top table for what will be a protracted argument about the nature of the Forum and the future of the Islands. More than a diplomatic debate, the wrangle goes to issues of power and identity, pitting Oz status quo interests against Fiji’s revisionism.

A key aim of Fiji revisionism is to strip Australia of its rights as an insider, to redefine regionalism so that Australia isn’t part of the South Pacific. In Fiji’s reimagining, Australia and New Zealand would be kicked out of the Forum. In that argument, Australia counts France a welcome reinforcement to the established order.

Proclaiming Australia’s ‘leadership role’ to deal with instability, natural disasters and climate change in the South Pacific, the 2016 Defence White Paper named a set of partners: New Zealand, France, the United States, and Japan. The hierarchy of lists always matters in White Papers and this is high rating for what France can deliver.

The White Paper’s discussion of France offered these three layers of history, international approach and new South Pacific partnership:

  • Australia and France ‘share a longstanding and close defence relationship’;
  • The two nations have a ‘shared commitment to addressing global security challenges such as terrorism and piracy’;
  • And in the neighbourhood: ‘We are strong partners in the Pacific where France maintains important capabilities and we also work closely together to support the security in our respective Southern Ocean territories.’

The White Paper was published in February, 2016, and two months later France won the $50 billion submarine prize; the Oz–French strategic partnership shape-shifted to a new universe. In an ironic reversal of history, the South Pacific can now provide relationship ballast for the inevitable arguments and agonies of the sub build.

The long submarine marriage until 2050 will be marked by passionate, expensive acrimony between two disparate partners. And no divorce is possible in a huge project, as diabolically expensive as it’s technically difficult. In the decades ahead, partnership in the South Pacific may be the natural and easier part of the Oz–French relationship. Change, indeed.