Australia has remarkably strong ties with France in the Pacific – and they are stifling the drive toward independence of countries like New Caledonia. The second report of a special two-part series.
Analysis – By Nic Maclellan
As Australia prepares to take up a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013, the UN decolonisation agenda will affect Australia’s relations with neighbouring Pacific countries.
However, recent actions by the Gillard Labor government suggest that Canberra has chosen sides with France and the United States on this often-ignored agenda at the United Nations.
From 1946, the United Nations has maintained a list of non-self-governing territories seeking political independence. Just 16 territories remain on the list, including five Pacific islands, though others are seeking to be relisted.
Twenty five years ago, at the height of the conflict between supporters and opponents of independence, Australia supported New Caledonia’s successful bid for re-inscription on the list of countries to be decolonised.
This French Pacific dependency has been scrutinised by the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation ever since — the governments of France and New Caledonia even invited the UN committee to hold its regional seminar in Noumea in 2010.
In French Polynesia, the coalition government led by long-time independence campaigner Oscar Temaru has been seeking the same sort of international support.
In spite of tough economic times at home — with falling numbers of tourists and changing French subsidies after the end of nuclear testing — Temaru has been seeking regional and international support to be relisted with the United Nations decolonisation process.
Since Temaru was first elected President in 2004, there has been a slow but significant shift in local opinion.
Last year, the Territorial Assembly in Pape’ete narrowly voted for the first time to support Temaru’s call for reinscription.
In August 2012, the synod of the Eglise Protestante Maohi (EPM) — the Protestant church that is the largest denomination in French Polynesia — voted for the first time to support reinscription. The Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) and World Council of Churches (WCC) have also supported the call.
In spite of this, Australia has sided with Paris to reject French Polynesia’s call for increased UN scrutiny.
Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles, in an interview published in Islands Business magazine, recently said: “We absolutely take our lead from France on this.”
In recent years, Australia and France have signed a series of agreements that cement relations on defence, aid co-operation and joint exploration for oil and gas reserves in the waters between Australia and New Caledonia — culminating last January in a Joint Statement on Strategic Partnership.
For many years, Australia and France have expanded defence cooperation in the Pacific, through port visits, joint military exercises, arms deals and meetings between senior military officers.
The Southern Cross military exercises held every two years in New Caledonia are a key part of regional military cooperation, with US marines joining Australia and French troops in the latest wargames in October.
Since 1992, the France-Australia-New Zealand (FRANZ) agreement has provided a mechanism for joint humanitarian and maritime surveillance operations in the South Pacific. The 2009 Australia-France Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) strengthens the defence partnership, but is underlined by French efforts to increase arms sales to Australia: by 2006, Australia was the second largest purchaser of French armaments in the world.
Eurocopter, a subsidiary of the giant European Aeronautic Defence and Space company (EADS), is successfully competing with American arms manufacturers to sell helicopters and other equipment to the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
France and Australia are also co-operating in joint exploration of the waters between Queensland and New Caledonia. Geoscience Australia and French research agencies have conducted joint surveys of the ocean floor near the Capel and Faust Basins, looking for sediments that would indicate deep water reserves of oil and gas.
In March 2010, the signing of a “Declaration of Intention between Australia and France (on behalf of New Caledonia) over Coral Sea Management” signalled increased joint operations over reef ecology and maritime resources in these waters.
For some, the sight of France as the administering power making decisions over New Caledonia’s resources brings back memories of Australia’s deal with Indonesia over the oil reserves of the Timor Gap.
A further sign of Australia-France relations is a partnership agreement signed in July 2011 between Australia’s aid agency AusAID and the French equivalent Agence française de développement (AFD). This agreement opens the way for co-operation in Africa and Afghanistan, but also allows for joint programs in the Pacific.
All these agreements culminated in the signing of the Joint Statement of Strategic Partnership in January 2012.
At the time, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and his French counterpart Alain Juppe signed the agreement in Paris, which highlights joint commitments on Afghanistan, nuclear non-proliferation, terrorism, global economic reform and the Pacific.
Australia’s global partnership with France seems to be affecting its policies in the islands region. Even though many Pacific states have publicly stated their support for French Polynesia’s bid for re-inscription at the United Nations, the August 2012 meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum reaffirmed the Australian position, calling for further dialogue between Paris and Pape’ete.
A month later, however, many Pacific leaders lined up at the UN General Assembly to publicly support French Polynesia’s right to self-determination. The leaders of Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu explicitly called for action on decolonisation.
Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Sato Kilman said: “I call on the independent and free nations of the world to complete the story of decolonisation and close this chapter.
“At this juncture, I urge the United Nations not to reject the demands for French Polynesia’s right to self-determination and progress.”
The same month, with Fiji’s Foreign Minister in attendance, the 16th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran issued a new policy on decolonisation, which noted: “The Heads of State or Government affirmed the inalienable right of the people of French Polynesia — Maohi Nui to self-determination in accordance with Chapter XI of the Charter of the United Nations and the UN General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV).”
With the other French Pacific dependency of New Caledonia scheduled to hold a referendum on its future political status after 2014, the question of France’s role in the South Pacific isn’t going away soon.