Something fishy about Hao Atoll?
28 Sep 2020|

In a recent Strategist article on China’s island-building strategy in the Pacific, Steve Raaymakers recycles a number of misapprehensions about a planned Chinese fisheries project on Hao Atoll in French Polynesia.

The article suggests that China will leverage an as yet unrealised fisheries project into control of an ‘atoll lagoon, which is large and deep enough to accommodate an entire naval fleet’. It is understandable that the defence community looks at worst-case scenarios. But it’s hardly likely that the French government will allow China to build a military base in its territory or to conduct military operations from its Pacific dependency.

Unfortunately, Raaymakers repeats the same errors as previous media articles arguing that the Hao project proposed by China’s Tianrui Group will lead to greater Chinese strategic influence in the region.

In a May 2018 article in the Sydney Morning Herald, David Wroe wrote:

The massive fish farm project on Hao atoll has raised eyebrows in Canberra because it will sit next to the airport the French military previously used to carry out nuclear tests in the Pacific—though the French Polynesian government says the Chinese investor will not control the four-kilometre airstrip …

Concerns in Canberra focused on speculation Tianrui could seek a lease on their airport, giving Beijing a strategic foothold 11,000 kilometres into the Pacific Ocean.

Citing US security officials and Australian think tanks, Wroe’s story followed a similar line to pieces he had written about purported discussions to establish a Chinese military facility in Vanuatu—claims denied by the Vanuatu government.

It’s ironic that commentators are only now expressing concern about the militarisation of Hao Atoll. For decades, Hao was used by the French military as a forward base for the Centre d’Expérimentation du Pacifique (Pacific Testing Centre). Located in the Tuamotu Archipelago, Hao has a 3,420-metre military airstrip, which is one of the longest in the Pacific.

With a population of around 1,700, Hao served as a staging post between France, Papeete and the nuclear testing sites at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls, where France conducted 193 nuclear tests between 1966 and 1996.

Hao lagoon—one of the largest in French Polynesia—was used to decontaminate aircraft, ships and personnel exposed to radioactivity at the testing centre. A number of studies have investigated potential nuclear contamination on the atoll. More recent examinations have found asbestos and other toxic substances around the former airbase. In 2006, the French Delegate for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection for Defence Activities revealed that large amounts of contaminated material were simply dumped in the ocean after the end of testing in 1996, including 532 tonnes of waste off Hao.

Given this polluted legacy, the French Polynesian government has been trying for decades to lure investors to Hao Atoll, to replace jobs and economic activity that collapsed as France wound down its military operations. After the end of nuclear testing, the government under then President Gaston Flosse urged foreign corporations to invest in Hao, touting it as ‘a genuine tax haven in the heart of the Pacific!’ Advertisements in The Economist in 2000 proclaimed that Hao Atoll offered ‘exemption from corporate taxes, exemption from registration and property taxes, exemption from custom duties and no personal income tax’.

Decades later, with little interest from Western corporations, the search for investors extended to Asia. In December 2016, Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods presented a proposal for a fisheries project on Hao. Established in 2014, the company is a subsidiary of the Tianrui Group. Chaired by billionaire Li Liufa, the parent company operates from Ruzhou City in Henan and has investments in cement, foundry, tourism, mining, trade and logistics, finance and other industries.

Early corporate publicity stated that Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods would invest US$1.5 billion (A$2 billion), creating up to 10,000 jobs. However, the scale and cost of the project have been revised downwards several times and the start of construction has been repeatedly delayed. No fish are yet being farmed.

Raaymakers reiterates the claim that it’s a $2 billion project, a claim that is really just company spin. Publicly available documents, published in the official gazette of the French Polynesian government, show the company plans to invest 32 billion French Pacific francs, equivalent to US$300 million. Even that figure is suspect—little of this money has materialised so far.

This project is often presented in the Western media as an example of Chinese ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, but there are no loans involved, and the very concept has been criticised in a recent report from Chatham House. Indeed, the government of French Polynesia is so eager for job creation on Hao that it is providing massive financial incentives to Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods, agreeing to exempt it from any tax for 30 years on the importation of materials and fuel.

Raaymakers talks of ‘the leasing of the highly strategic Hao Atoll’. But on the basis of public documents, neither the Chinese company nor the Chinese state retains control over the airstrip, let alone the whole atoll. At the time the project was being negotiated, French Polynesia’s development minister was quoted by Wroe as saying, ‘This airport is owned today by the French Polynesian government … There is no deal possible about leasing an airport.’

It’s certainly worth looking at Chinese corporate activities in the Pacific, but digging into source documentation, rather than repeating incorrect data and speculation, is critical for an accurate understanding of what is happening in the Pacific. I’ve written a study on the activities of Chinese investors in the French Pacific territories that addresses some of these assumptions to be published later this year as a chapter in The China alternative.

With Paris signing off on the Hao project and eager to reduce the amount of government revenue flowing into French Polynesia, there’s little evidence that it could give Beijing ‘a strategic foothold 11,000 kilometres into the Pacific Ocean’. It is worrying that commentary continues to be published suggesting that China will be able to conduct military operations from French Polynesia.

The notion that France would allow China to use its territory to attack US sea lanes in the eastern Pacific doesn’t pass the pub test. As a journalist, I have been approached by bemused officials in Tahiti, angered by such claims. One asked me, ‘Do Australians really think we would ally with China to attack America?’