As the great power rivalry of the 21st century is engulfing the South Pacific, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the region from July 24-29, 2023. His visit covered three important destinations – New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea – that carry a symbolic salience along with strategic significance for France, a resident power in the Indo-Pacific region. Macron’s official visit to the region points towards an intricate interplay between historical legacy and strategic interests amidst the geopolitical competition in the region between China and the U.S.
Leveraging Historical Connections
Macron’s visit attempted to justify French interests and fortify French presence in the Blue Pacific Continent. He endeavored to capitalize on France’s cultural affinities and historical ties in the region to position France as a relevant actor and a trustworthy partner, amidst a looming geopolitical competition.
France’s historical engagement with the Pacific Island states can be traced back to the era of European exploration and colonial expansion. New Caledonia, a territory in the southwest Pacific, was claimed by France in 1853 which eventually became a penal colony and evolved afterward into an important economic and military outpost in the South Pacific. The French influence in this territory expanded beyond colonial administration, encompassing cultural and economic ties, but calls for separatism are getting stronger in the archipelago.
On this visit to New Caledonia in the aftermath of three referendums that rejected the appeals for separating from France, Macron reiterated that le Caillou (as the Pacific archipelago is called) remains French as it has chosen to be and its future lies within France. His message resonated with the desire for an economic revival and having a renewed social model based on reconciliation, addressing the colonial injustices suffered by the island territory. Macron called for a resolution of the delicate question of the status of the archipelago.
Macron’s discourse in Vanuatu recognized the Pacific island nation’s colonial past and its impact on the island’s society and economy. The archipelago was a part of the New Hebrides Condominium (Condominium des Nouvelles-Hébrides) that was jointly administered by the United Kingdom and France for a substantial period of the 20th century.
The French President’s message in Port-Vila echoed the one in Nouméa on historical legacy and charting a future trajectory of relations. He acknowledged that Vanuatu’s French colonial past had resulted in alienation and sufferings in various forms, varying from human trafficking to assault on indigenous customs. By appealing to leave aside the vestiges of the colonial past, he called for protecting the Pacific island nation’s sovereignty in the present challenging times. The thrust of his message signaled the need to forge renewed and respectful partnerships across the South Pacific and that it was an important feature of the Indo-Pacific Strategy of France.
Addressing the China Challenge
Macron’s assertion of upholding ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ could resonate profoundly in the South Pacific in the context of the growing China challenge in the region. Beijing has made remarkable economic inroads in the South Pacific through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Being one of the largest aid providers, a developmental partner for many Pacific Island nations, and a major economic player in the region, China brings in concessional loans, investments in critical infrastructure projects, and initiatives aimed at enhancing trade with the comparatively less developed countries of the South Pacific.
However, China’s growing economic engagement carries potential implications for the autonomy and decision-making capacities of the countries in the South Pacific. These countries, endowed with vast Exclusive Economic Zones but a capacity deficit in monitoring and controlling illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, have already witnessed the mounting and persistent challenge of IUU fishing by China, the worst offender of IUU fishing. The resultant encumbrances on the sovereignty of the island states cannot be denied.
The French President, during his visit to Vanuatu, attempted to contextualize the China challenge with the paradigm of ‘new imperialism’, as manifested in Beijing’s ever-expanding presence in the region which he termed as a form of ‘new colonialism’. He reiterated that France’s Indo-Pacific strategy underlined by an assured French re-engagement in the region would collectively safeguard the sovereignty of the island states, complemented by capacity-building initiatives. The French military presence forms a linchpin of any such French strategy that seeks to uphold sovereignty across the South Pacific.
Furthermore, Chinese influence operations in New Caledonia remain an intriguing phenomenon. They have directly affected the sensitive and complicated issue of the island territory’s independence from France as highlighted in an IRSEM report in October 2021, just before the third and final independence referendum in December 2021. It stated bluntly, “An independent New Caledonia would be de facto under Chinese influence.” Beijing’s purported interests in supporting separatist elements in the nickel-rich archipelago of New Caledonia pose a challenge to French core interests in the region. Paris has sought to respond to this challenge by a renewed engagement in the South Pacific through its broader strategy for the Indo-Pacific region.
A French Alternative for the Region
As the China challenge looms over French interests in the region, Macron’s visit to the South Pacific aimed at offering an alternative to the states of the region that are witnessing an escalating strategic competition between the U.S. and China. This is as per France’s self-characterization as a balancing power or a stabilizing power in the Indo-Pacific region and its strategic autonomy in international politics.
The quest for the assertion of strategic autonomy can be located in France’s economic and commercial pursuits in the region. The operations of the French energy giant TotalEnergies, a substantial player in energy exploration in Papua New Guinea, highlight vital French economic interests in the region.
Macron’s visit served as an opportunity to demonstrate the emphasis that Paris puts on the synthesis between economic investments and sustainable development. This would further help depict France as an adept and viable alternative in the region, eventually bolstering the strategic standing of Paris vis-a-vis Beijing and Washington in the region.
For instance, Paris has been advocating for an EU-led ‘Forest, Climate Change and Biodiversity’ project to be implemented in PNG under Brussels’ ambitious Global Gateway initiative. This project aims at establishing a robust regulatory and institutional framework, discreetly addressing the issues that arise due to unsustainable infrastructure projects, majorly financed by China through BRI in the region.
Moreover, Macron, while elucidating France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, emphasized the need for ‘combating climate change’ over ‘defense’, signifying the importance accorded to climate change as a cornerstone of the French strategy for the region. The Pacific Island states unequivocally recognize climate change as their preeminent and primary security concern. As the South Pacific grapples with the growing geopolitical competition and environmental vulnerabilities, Macron, thus, attempted to portray that the French alternative was attuned to the developmental and security imperatives of the Pacific Island states.
France, a Natural Partner
Macron’s visit is also considered historic as no sitting French president has visited the non-French islands in the region. His strategic narrative aimed to depict France as a natural partner in the South Pacific having historical ties and legacy, who understands the needs of the region and is ready to protect the sovereignty of the island nations in the present challenging times.
However, while the French strategy for the larger Indo-Pacific region positions Paris as an important player in the region, certain significant economic and military constraints limit the depth of the French engagement. These constraints further impede France’s ability to play a decisive role in the larger Indo-Pacific region, despite being the only EU nation-state having a substantial presence on the Blue Pacific continent. Nevertheless, Paris, with its renewed engagement with the region, would contribute to balancing China’s presence for the West and other like-minded partners in the region.