Media Link: The French are back, and in a big way.

datePosted on 18:39, September 14th, 2016 by Pablo

I spent some time talking with a Radio New Zealand reporter, who I must say is very well versed in the politics of the region, reflecting on the de facto admission of France into the Pacific Island Forum. Unlike the usual media sound bites, he gave me some room to reflect.

2 Responses to “Media Link: The French are back, and in a big way.”

  1. James Green on September 15th, 2016 at 12:47

    Well France was already represented in the PIF with its 3 territories so how does this work in practice? They now have effectively two votes in the Forum I take it?

  2. Pablo on September 15th, 2016 at 13:30

    That is what makes this a big play.

    France previously had observer status at the PIF, as did New Caledonia and French Polynesia. France has always reserved foreign relations, defense and external security (intelligence) and the civil bureaucracy to itself in these territories. With the creation of the Melanesian Spearhead Group and Pacific Island Development Forum in the last six years at its instigation, Fiji (under Baimimarama) has attempted to undercut the PIF and South Pacific Community (SPC) while calling for the expulsion of Australia and NZ from the PIF. Fiji was suspended from the PIF after the coup and invited back after the 2014 elections, but Baimimarama’s government refused the invitation and instead doubled down on his efforts to get the Melanesian members of the PIF to abandon it.

    Coupled with the fact that Baimimarama wants to create a Fiji led MSG intervention force and has now established bilateral military-to-military ties with China and Russia, set against a backdrop of China’s check book diplomacy throughout the SoPac, to include French autonomous territories, and you can see why France wanted to take a full membership role in the PIF rather than stay on the sidelines observing. In achieving full membership for NC and French Polynesia France is in effect getting two full votes in the PIF.

    Moreover, the MSG and PIDF exclude Australia, NZ and France while having China as an observer. This strikes at the heart of French interests in the SoPac. As I told the reporter in a part of the interview that was not aired, for the last few years Australia and France have conducted annual bilateral military exercises in their respective territories. These exercises are not about terrorism but about regional conflicts involving major conventional forces, so are clearly aimed at something other than civil unrest and peacekeeping.

    France keeps 8000 land troops in New Caledonia along with a small air detachment. It has a small navy flotilla based in Papeete but I understand that it is being upgraded to include a better ASW capability (which would mean the forward stationing of a destroyer, at a minimum). Even if the 2019-20 New Caledonia referendum on independence results in a victory for the “yes” vote, the French have already said that they will not withdraw their Pacific Army from NC (but have threatened to stop funding and withdraw their civil service. which would bring NC to a halt in a week).

    Given all that, the successful French bid for membership in the PIF not only signals the end of the rift caused by nuclear testing, but also very pointedly signals that France is not going to allow China, via its Fijian proxy, to meddle in French territorial affairs. It also gives the PIF the potential to use NZ, OZ and French military muscle in the case of regional conflicts, which given their proximity to potential SoPac conflict zones and the relative lack of Chinese military capability in the region (no ground troops, limited forward basing outside of Suva), tips the scales against Fijian/Chinese adventurism. In light of the Russian arms “donation” to Fiji and the attendant concerns expressed by authorities in places like Tonga, this could well be part of a reassurance move on the part of the former colonial patrons to PIF members who feel threatened by Fiji’s behaviour. The question is whether it will be read as such by Fiji and the PRC.

    Things have just heated up a notch.

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