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  • Writer's pictureNick C.

Below Water Diplomacy and New Caledonian Independence would cause considerable ripple effects

France was shocked last week when the US, Australia and the UK jointly announced the creation of the AUKUS alliance to secure the Indo-Pacific. Not only was it held in the dark by some of its closest non-European allies, but it also torpedoed “le contrat du siècle” worth $60 billion for 12 conventional French submarines to be supplied by Naval Group to Australia. The ties that link the two nations run deep, from the French explorers that landed in Australia to the brave Australians that fought in Northern France during the first World War. Thus the news that France was not warned of these talks justly sent shockwaves with French Foreign Minister calling the action a “stab in the back”.

President Obama used the term “pivot” to indicate the White House increasing its focus on Asia. Similarly, both Australian Prime Ministers Rudd and Turnbull asked the question of whether to pivot its foreign policy which tends to act as a US satellite in the region, to grow closer to the regional superpower: China. The rise of Xi Jinping and the hardening of China’s stance in world politics, and the militarisation of the South China Sea, definitely led to a pivot but not one of cooperation. It is fear that cemented the AUKUS alliance. And so, with the promise of US supplied nuclear submarines the French contract is dead in the water.

In response, France recalled its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra, although not in London, in a diplomatic rebuke. The strong response seems misunderstood by the Americans and Australians who look at it as an escalation. While they expected criticism from Beijing, the French position was underestimated. The reason is however simple. Much like Britain, France is an old-world power fighting to remain relevant at the world stage. By recalling the two ambassadors, it signals its importance and willingness to stand against the US, while not recalling the ambassador in London perhaps allows France to signal the lack of importance it places on Britain post Brexit.

President Macron is facing a Presidential election in 2022 and with challenges coming from the right, he needs to posture to show strength. Ironically, while it is a historic first for a French ambassador to the US to be recalled, Macron is probably among the most open, pro-US president Biden could face. In France, there exist significant anti-American sentiment. Bush did not help the cause, but it arguably goes back to General de Gaulle. The extreme right is also anti-EU and dreams of a Frexit. In such a climate, faced with an America-first policy Macron cannot appear soft and accommodating.

As the Anglo-Saxon world pivot towards China and the Indo-Pacific, there is a risk that France pivots out of the region and back toward Europe.

New Caledonia, a French island 3,000 km east of Australia, is holding a crucial independence referendum on December 12th 2021. This referendum has of course nothing to do with issues of geostrategic importance. In fact as Brexit has taught us, even the economy takes a back sit in identity politics. Indeed, while the small island is the fourth largest nickel producer – Australia is fifth - it still depends on French finances. It also depends on France for its regalian competencies: Justice, Public Order, Defence, Monetary policies, and Foreign Affairs. This may potentially all end if New Caledonians choose to become an independent nation later this year.

The referendum is the third and last planned by the Noumea accords of 1998. Indeed, the first was held in 2018 and rejected by 56.7% of the eligible population, while the second held in 2020 was rejected by 53.3%. With the growing number of young Melanesians in the electoral body, 2021 is expected be edging closer to the 50-50 mark. The outcome of this referendum is of course of extreme importance for the island and its 270,000 inhabitants, but less discussed is how it could affect the region.

The unexpected turn of events with Australia cancelling the submarine orders less than 3 months before this referendum means that France could potentially be dealt two blows to its strategic interests in the region in a very short time. The submarine contract was more than just a large source of income for France, it was symbolic of the Franco-Australian cooperation to come in the next decades. If the alliance is indeed in question as signalled by the recalling of the ambassador in Canberra, losing the New Caledonian territory along with its nickel and huge maritime zone would very likely tip France’s interests out of the Pacific.

In Geopolitics, there is always a danger that we over focus on the large players. Such a myopic vision is dangerous because in a multi-polar world, events in small countries can have ripple effects and affect larger players’ strategic interests. In December this year, less than 200,000 people in a small Pacific Island will be casting a vote with ripples that may extend far beyond what observers expect.

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