Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong is scheduled to travel to New Caledonia this week, to meet with President Louis Mapou, the first Kanak independence leader to head the Government of New Caledonia in forty years.
President Mapou said the visit was a welcome opportunity to extend relations with New Caledonia’s closest neighbour, and discuss regional affairs and the work of the Pacific Islands Forum.
“We are eager to work with Australia, our great neighbour, on trade, development, training, as there are many areas where we can co-operate and prosper,” he said. “But I need to emphasise, I don’t have the agility, the flexibility or the means of an independent country – because we aren’t independent. I don’t have the capacity or the sovereignty of an independent nation.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Islands Business, President Mapou highlighted the desire of New Caledonia to build closer ties with the region, even as the Albanese government is extending geopolitical ties with Western powers, through the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) agreement and the France-Australia strategic partnership.
First nations foreign policy
Speaking on behalf of Australia at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2022, Foreign Minister Penny Wong stated: “As Foreign Minister, I am determined to see First Nations perspectives at the heart of Australian foreign policy.”
Last month, the Albanese government appointed Gooreng Gooreng man Justin Mohamed as Australia’s inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People. Mohamed will lead the Office of First Nations Engagement in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
President Mapou told Islands Business that he appreciated this recognition of indigenous peoples in Australia.
“We welcome this idea with much satisfaction, for what it brings Aboriginal people,” he said. “You must recognise this when you think of Australia’s history. For too long, the status of the Aboriginal people was hidden under the cover of the famous theory of ‘terra nullius’. Then there was the Mabo case, where people finally began to address the land question. There was important work done by ATSIC. There were historic moments, like the Stolen Generations. So, I’m very happy that the Australian government, the Labor Party, have started to engage with this issue.”
Mapou also stressed the importance of indigenous perspectives in regional affairs, saying that “self-determination and emancipation are core principles” of the Pacific Islands Forum 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent.
“This First Nations idea is also important for how Australia engages with us and the other Pacific island countries within the Forum,” he said. “Australia is a large nation and has responsibilities in the Pacific. We hope that as Australia engages with New Caledonia, it will use this perspective to address the Kanak customary system, the indigenous question. If they do so, we can only welcome it.”
Wong’s visit to New Caledonia comes as Australia seeks to rebuild relations with the French government, ruptured by the September 2021 announcement of the AUKUS partnership and the cancellation of the $90 billion Naval Group submarine contract.
Within weeks of the election of his ALP government in May 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese travelled to Europe for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Palace.
Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles then met his French counterpart Sébastien Lecornu in Brest last September. Their joint statement included a shopping list of commitments: “deepening of military interoperability, including through more joint regional deployments and training activities”; “increased mutual access to … military infrastructures”; “expanded secure communications links to improve intelligence exchanges”; “stronger two-way industrial and technological defence partnerships”; a “wide-ranging dialogue address[ing] the key armament programmes of both countries, from the maritime domain to air and space sector, including land and missile systems”; and “the development of space defence capabilities, such as Earth observation satellites, satellite communication or space domain awareness”.
Marles is scheduled to join Lecornu in New Caledonia later this year, as France hosts the 2023 South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting.
A further 2+2 ministerial meeting in Paris in January saw Foreign Minister Wong and Defence Minister Marles meet their French counterparts. Their communiqué noted “As Pacific nations, France and Australia are committed to supporting Pacific priorities, fostering regional security, stability and economic progress.”
Last year, Australia’s Minister for the Pacific Pat Conroy told Islands Business that “we’re focussed on rebuilding our relationship not just with France, but with all of the Pacific. We want to improve relations with all Pacific countries and territories as well as with the Government of France and we’re confident that we can do both of those.”
For New Caledonia’s leader, however, the strengthening of the France-Australia strategic partnership and the plan for Australia to develop a fleet of nuclear submarines under AUKUS raises many questions – especially amongst Melanesian nations who advance a “friends to all, enemies to none” foreign policy.
“I understand that Australia is a sovereign nation and must nourish its important relationships with powerful countries in the region,” President Mapou said. “But we need to see how this affects the cohesion and unity of the Forum. The Forum’s 2050 Strategy says it must focus on the interests of the people of the Pacific, and this must be our priority as we look at the actions of the great powers around the region.
“There is no doubt that France needs New Caledonia and French Polynesia for its Indo-Pacific strategy, facing other major powers in the region. But this is not our project – we want to integrate with our neighbours in the Pacific region. This is a discussion we started at the 51st Forum leaders meeting last year. The US Vice President made a virtual speech to the meeting. But at the time, we wondered: ‘The United States can speak. Why not China?’”
Questions over AUKUS
Roch Wamytan, the President of New Caledonia’s Congress, has raised similar concerns over President Macron’s proposed India – Australia – France axis, first outlined by during his visit to Australia and New Caledonia in May 2018.
Interviewed at his office in Noumea, Wamytan stressed: “We don’t want to be the point of the spear in Mr. Macron’s Indo-Pacific strategy or in his geopolitical axis. We want to address the interests of New Caledonians. We’re not here just to add value to their policy. We’re the ones who live in the Pacific, not them. If anyone is going to be invaded by China, it’s us, not them! They shouldn’t impose their Indo-Pacific strategy on us.”
Wamytan acknowledged Australian security concerns at a time of increased competition between the United States and China, noting that the Albanese government “have reasons for what they’re doing because of their relations with China, because they effectively have declared that China is their enemy. We don’t agree with that, but that’s how larger nations play out their politics in the Pacific.”
Wamytan added: “We are closer to the line coming from New Zealand – we need to talk more, we need a strategy of co-operation, to avoid policies that could lead us to catastrophe tomorrow. Concerning nuclear submarines, we’ve always supported a nuclear free Pacific and we remain committed to that.”
As a longstanding leader of the independence movement Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), President Mapou also highlighted regional polarisation and the nuclear legacies of more than 310 Cold War nuclear tests across the islands.
“The independence movement of New Caledonia – of which I’m a member – is in favour of non-alignment,” he said. “We regularly attend the summits of the Non-Aligned Movement. From the earliest days, we have supported a nuclear free Pacific – that’s even set out in the preamble of the draft Constitution of Kanaky that we submitted to the United Nations in 1986.
“When Australia decides to align itself with the United States in the framework of AUKUS to acquire nuclear submarines, it raises the question: if it starts here, where will it end? How does this impact the Treaty of Rarotonga and the Boe Declaration on security? These are the sorts of questions I hope to discuss with the Foreign Minister.”
Putting the Pacific into Indo-Pacific
Since he gained office in July 2021, President Mapou has sought to extend ties with Australia, New Zealand and Forum Island Countries. His government has signed MoUs with members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, seeking opportunities for trade, training and common action on environmental issues. Under shared foreign affairs powers with France, New Caledonia has deployed representatives to work from French embassies in Canberra, Wellington, Port Vila, Port Moresby and Suva.
But Mapou said his priority remains closer involvement in Oceania, rather than engagement with France’s wider Indo-Pacific agenda.
“On the Indo-Pacific, I don’t know about ‘Indo’, I’m focussed on the Pacific,” he said. “I’m preoccupied with our integration within the Pacific region, which has been delayed for far too long. The future of New Caledonia is here. How does this fit into France’s Indo-Pacific strategy? That’s the big question. Our current political arrangements don’t give us the flexibility and means to advance our agenda. On the contrary, I’ve been blocked on many aspects by the central government in Paris.”
In January, the Foreign Affairs, Armed Forces and Defence Committee of the French Senate issued a report critiquing France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and questioning the gulf between rhetoric and reality. The Senate report stated that France’s strategy was designed without involvement of Kanak and Ma’ohi politicians, who “were not consulted by the metropolitan executive power prior to the adoption of the strategy, or, more recently, the deployment of military forces in their territories.”
“We weren’t consulted,” Mapou confirmed to Islands Business. “The only time the President of the Republic talked to us about his ‘Indo-Pacific axis’ was during his initial visit in May 2018. French diplomats in the region talk about the strategy, but it is driven from Paris and we’re not included in it.”
“France has its own ties with countries like Australia and New Zealand and have no need to pass through us,” he added. “Beyond this, the strategy promoted by the French government is focussed on its military aspects and the strengthening of its naval capacity in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. The armed forces are at the heart of their strategy, and the second vector is financing through French corporations and financial institutions and also the European Union.”
The Senate report also noted that “the President of the Government and the President of the Congress of New Caledonia explained to us that they did not expect much from France but rather from Australia and New Zealand.”
For President Mapou, this week’s visit by the Australian foreign minister is a crucial opportunity to extend co-operation through the Forum.
“New Caledonia hasn’t been sufficiently visible in the region,” he said. “Since the political agreements of 1988 and 1998, there’s been an opportunity for us to engage within the natural environment to which we belong. So today, we have a bit more visibility in the region through our missions to the Pacific and our work in its organisations – the SPC, SPREP, and of course the Pacific Islands Forum.”