French President Emmanuel Macron and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken are just two of the top figures who have spent the week touring island nations
Macron warns French territory New Caledonia that independence might mean ‘that tomorrow you’ll decide to have a Chinese base here … That’s no independence’
By Khushboo Razdan in New York
July 28, 2023
French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking in Noumea, New Caledonia, on Wednesday, was only the most prominent Western official touring Pacific island nations this week. (Photo: AFP
A major diplomatic counteroffensive against Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific is fully under way, and there’s no better sign than Western leaders visiting the region’s once-neglected islands – all at once.
The most prominent figures island-hopping this week include French President Emmanuel Macron and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin also travelled to Papua New Guinea, while Britain’s Armed Forces Minister James Heappey stopped in Fiji.
Creating the most buzz among the Western guests is Macron, who during a visit to the nickel-rich French overseas territory of New Caledonia warned of “Chinese naval bases tomorrow” if the strategically located archipelago gained independence.
“If independence means that tomorrow you’ll decide to have a Chinese base here, or to be dependent on another maritime fleet, good luck with that – that’s no independence,” he said on Wednesday in Noumea, the New Caledonian capital.
He called on pro-independence indigenous Kanaks to accept the pro-France third and final self-determination referendum of 2021. The Kanaks boycotted that vote and the negotiations on the territory’s status under France remain deadlocked.
“We need to come out of the face-to-face tensions, which is the only way that will allow the path of the future of New Caledonia in the republic and in the Pacific,” Macron urged.
France maintains naval bases in New Caledonia, which was declared a French convict colony by Napoleon III in 1853. The first two independence votes, held in 2018 and 2020, favoured French rule. However, pro-independence votes have increased over time with recent gains in the Kanak population. Macron’s efforts to preserve the vestiges of France’s colonial empire were on full display in New Caledonia, but during his visit to Vanuatu he cautioned against “new imperialism”.
Vanuatu was jointly ruled by Britain and France until it gained independence in 1980. With his visit, Macron also became the first sitting French president to set foot in an independent Pacific country.
“There is in the Indo-Pacific, and particularly in Oceania, new imperialism appearing, and a power logic that is threatening the sovereignty of several states – the smallest, often the most fragile,” Macron said on Thursday in Port Vila.
Though he didn’t name it, China remains deeply involved with the region.
Beijing’s development financing in the region peaked in 2016, according to a report by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. But it remains a major infrastructure lender to Pacific island nations.
Vanuatu took new loans with China between 2017 and 2021, and Reuters reported that China’s Export-Import Bank is also the country’s largest creditor.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) meeting Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape in Port Moresby on Thursday. Photo: AFP
Pitching France’s Indo-Pacific strategy in Port Vila, Macron claimed that it was aimed at defending “through partnerships the independence and sovereignty of all states in the region that are ready to work with us”.
France relaunched its Indo-Pacific strategy last year to reclaim its stake in the region after Australia ditched a French submarine contract in favour of joining the Aukus alliance and the British and American nuclear-powered submarines it would provide.
Macron’s trip to Vanuatu overlapped with Austin’s visit to Papua New Guinea, which is the French leader’s next stop.
Austin, the first Pentagon chief to visit the island nation of 10 million people, announced that the US would deploy a coastguard cutter to Papua New Guinea – but hastened to add that Washington was not looking to establish a permanent military base there.
A key Pacific battleground during World War II, Papua New Guinea has become a focus of geopolitical rivalry between China and the US.
And while Austin was busy securing deeper defence ties with Papua New Guinea, Blinken – the top US diplomat – didn’t rule out a possible expansion of Aukus during a joint press conference with New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta in Wellington.
In response to a question about New Zealand joining the alliance, Blinken said that “the door is very much open for New Zealand and other partners to engage, as they see appropriate, going forward”.
His remarks came just days after he warned South Pacific islands, during his visit to Tonga, of “predatory” China’s “problematic behaviour”.
“As China’s engagement in the region has grown,” Blinken claimed, it had engaged in “some predatory economic activities, and also investments that are done in a way that can actually undermine good governance and promote corruption”.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during their joint address in Wellington on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
Blinken will head next to Australia, where he and Austin will meet with Penny Wong, the Australian foreign affairs minister, and Richard Marles, its defence minister, on Friday and Saturday.
The gathering follows Heappey’s trip last week to Fiji, where he visited the Fiji Naval Base and discussed Britain’s role in Pacific security.
Local media reported that Britain had confirmed greater cooperation with the Fijian military, with more British warships coming to the Pacific island.
Though other leaders’ itineraries were restricted to the Pacific, Macron is taking his outreach to the Indian Ocean.
In a first by a sitting French president, he will travel to Sri Lanka, which is located at the crossroads of Indian Ocean trade, on Friday to hold talks with his Sri Lankan counterpart Ranil Wickremesinghe.