As if the QUAD comprising India, Australia, Japan and the United States of America was not enough, France has also started beating China in the Indo-Pacific. France just won a showdown against China in the French territory of New Caledonia- an archipelago located towards the Eastern side of Australia in the Oceania. New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III. For several decades, it remained a prison colony and became an overseas territory only in 2017.
New Caledonia had voted to decide whether it wanted to gain independence from France following a three-decades long decolonisation campaign. The archipelago went to independence referendum in shadow of growing Chinese influence. The paper dragon was expecting that it will be able to push France out of the strategically located territory and gain foothold in the South Pacific region. However, New Caledonia has reportedly rejected the independence referendum.
More than 1,80,000 voters who voted in the independence referendum were asked, “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?” On Sunday morning, France’s Ministry for Overseas Territories revealed that 52 per cent of the voters had opted “no” at 226 of the 304 polling stations where counting was concluded. Provisional results show that “no” camp won 53.26 per cent of the total vote.
France is therefore at the brink of retaining New Caledonia as its overseas territory. The latest referendum places France in a very strong position in New Caledonia, as only two years ago France had won a similar referendum when 56.4 per cent voters of the archipelago had chosen to persist with the status quo.
New Caledonia has a pact of upto three referendums with France, each to be held two years apart starting 2018. The first two referendums have gone France’s way and Paris is therefore only one referendum away before ensuring that New Caledonia remains a French Overseas Territory in perpetuity. Now, if somebody is losing in the process, then it has to be China.
China has been looking to gobble up New Caledonia for which removing France from the archipelago is a sine qua non. China has tried to spread its tentacles to New Caledonia and the French territory gets most of its funding from nickel sales to the paper dragon.
In 2018, New Caledonia’s exports to China totalled a US$1.06 billion. China is looking to match upto French influence on New Caledonia. France extends an aid of US$1.5 billion to the former penal colony on an annual basis. Now, for China to export almost as much as France pays to the archipelago on an annual basis suggests that Beijing wants to buy out New Caledonia.
New Caledonia’s exports to China exceed its exports to the rest of the world combined. China has therefore tried to use its economic might in order to influence the strategically located archipelago.
French President Emmanuel Macron is himself aware of the Chinese threat to the French territory. However, he hasn’t let China have its way in New Caledonia. He has been able to convince the people of New Caledonia that Chinese influence is actually perilous for them. During the 2018 independence referendum Macron had warned that China was “building its hegemony step by step … a hegemony which will reduce our freedom, our opportunities” in the Pacific.
During the same trip, Macron had taken a stop in Australia where he pointed out the need for a “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” while adding that it was “absolutely key for the region and our joint objectives in the Indo-Pacific”.
If we may add, a “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” has become all the more necessary over the past two years. The paper dragon is turning both desperate and belligerent, and New Caledonia could still go for a third referendum in 2022. As such Australia and India, and even other QUAD members- Japan and the US, could hike investments in New Caledonia and shift the archipelago’s supply chains away from China. New Caledonia could as well become a point of convergence between France and the QUAD in the South Pacific region.
As such France is in a dominant position in New Caledonia. China had put all its might at stake in order to wean the archipelago away from France, but Paris has successfully struck a deadly blow against Beijing.