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France secures grip on Pacific politics

Thursday 15 September 2016 | Published in Regional


Territories gain PIF seats in regional power play

PACIFIC – After years of lobbying, France has effectively become a member of the Pacific Island’s main political grouping with the admission of its territories, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

A security analyst says a key motive for France’s effective addition to the Pacific Islands Forum is to stem the impact of Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama.

New Caledonia and French Polynesia became the 17th and 18th members of the Forum at the weekend but it is France that controls their foreign policy, Paul Buchanan claims.

Buchanan of 36th Parallel Assessments, a non governmental geopolitical consultancy, said France has been concerned about the growing closeness between Fiji and China.

He said he believes France, which has been campaigning for its territories to join the Forum for some years, is worried by the increasing assertiveness of China in the region.

“The immediate game is the power struggle between Frank Bainimarama and the Pacific Islands Forum,” he told Radio New Zealand’s Dateline Pacific.

“There have traditionally been divisions between Melanesians and Polynesians within the PIF, and within the South Pacific council as well.

“And Bainimarama has been trying to capitalise on this by developing alternative groups to the PIF which he thinks are dominated by the colonial powers, Australia and New Zealand in particular. And he has lobbied for their expulsion from the PIF.

“The counter-ploy, which has been building for over a year now, is to bring the French in – because the French represent New Caledonia and French Polynesia diplomatically and militarily even though both those territories have a considerable degree of autonomy in their internal affairs.

Buchancan said that means there are now three dominant western powers now sitting at PIF as full members.

“And we have to remember that the French Pacific Army is based in New Caledonia. There are 8000 French troops based in New Caledonia and the French Pacific Navy is based in French Polynesia.

“It is not coincidental that the French have tried to get into what some would argue is the premier inter-governmental organisation in the South Pacific.

“Because Fiji is the tip of a spear of Chinese influence projected into the South Pacific.

He claimed that through Fiji prime minster Frank Bainimarama, the Chinese have a defacto, if indirect diplomatic representative and it is China’s interests, as much as Fiji’s own interests, that come into play in his regional political manoeuvring.

“So the second game, is a game by proxy between the Chinese and Australia and New Zealand – and now the French.

“And that is where things get interesting because why would the French want to reassert themselves as full members? It seems to me it is because there is an increasingly assertive Chinese presence.

“Not only diplomatically, not only economically, but increasingly militarily in the region.

“That is facilitated in part by the close association of Fiji with China in the wake of the coup of 2006 – the sanctions that were imposed as a result of that and the declining influence of its traditional partners – Australia and New Zealand in particular but the United States as well – and the rise of China as its foremost interlocutor on all three dimensions of strategic power.

“And it remains to be seen whether the entrance of the French will harden the divisions between Polynesians and Melanesians, or at least harden the divisions between the Pacific Island Forum and Fiji.”