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France and the undersea continental shelf

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12 October 2010 15:27

Nic Maclellan works as a journalist and researcher in the Pacific islands.

In Law of the sea: can readers help', Julian asked whether China was 'merely following the bad example of other powers' by seeking to claim rights over blue water beyond the normal 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Before we too get heated about Chinese attempts at maritime extension in the South China Sea, let's look a bit closer to home. In our region, Australia and France are exploring for oil and gas reserves over 800km off the Queensland coast, based on claims over the undersea continental shelf.

Australia is exploring the seabed between Queensland and New Caledonia to determine the presence of petroleum reserves in the Capel and Faust basins (see map, courtesy of Geoscience Australia), which are located within a large continental fragment that extends about 1600 kilometres from the southwest of New Caledonia to the Bellona Trough west of New Zealand.

This research is documented in the September edition of the Geoscience Australia newsletter, which outlines recent exploration in the Capel and Faust basins, such as the French-Australian AUSFAIR survey in 2006 using the French polar vessel RV Marion Dufresne. As noted in the report, this preliminary assessment 'was carried out under the Australian Government's Offshore Energy Security Program as part of Geoscience Australia's continuing efforts to identify a new offshore petroleum province.'

Many nations are trying to extend control over the undersea continental shelf. Under Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can ask the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to make a ruling on the outer limits of the shelf. The commission can only make recommendations to coastal states and has no authority to determine the legitimacy of territorial claims.

France has an active program of undersea mapping and oceanographic studies to document its underwater continental shelf and show that it is a natural extension of the land. The French Government has established a program known as 'Extraplac' to co-ordinate scientific research and prepare submissions to the UN. In recent years, for example, France has attempted to extend New Caledonia's boundaries beyond the traditional 200nm limit, based on scientific studies from the maritime surveillance ship L'Atalante conducted in August and September 2004.

France has used Extraplac research on the continental shelf to justify its claim to expand New Caledonia's EEZ to include Umaenupne (Matthew) and Umaeneag (Hunter) islands, which are claimed by Vanuatu (with support from the FLNKS independence movement in New Caledonia). See here for discussion of France's ongoing boundary dispute with Vanuatu over the uninhabited islands.

For France, with its far-flung colonial empire, the UN Law of the Sea treaty provides significant advantages. France has only 340,290 sq km of EEZ in Europe, but its overseas territories and departments add 11 million sq km worldwide — over 7 million in the Pacific alone. French Polynesia has an EEZ of over 5,030,000 sq km, while New Caledonia adds 1,740,000 sq km, and Wallis and Futuna a further 300,000. Even uninhabited Clipperton Atoll has a larger EEZ than mainland France.

With all its overseas possessions, France has the world's third largest EEZ, after the US and Russia. Without these territories in the Pacific, Caribbean, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, France's EEZ would rank 45th in the world.

The debate over China's naval power in the Asia Pacific is used by the French military to justify proposals to restructure its base network in the Pacific islands (in spite of moves towards a referendum on New Caledonia's independence after 2014) and maintain a 'blue water' role in the northern Pacific. As discussed in my Nautilus Institute study on the Australia-France Defence Co-operation Agreement, the commander of France's Pacific naval contingent, Vice Admiral Amaury du Chéné, argues that France has a role to play in the face of China's rising naval power:

The Pacific basin presents some notable geopolitical peculiarities, the first of which is the importance of naval power….France also has its interests to defend in the Pacific - she has the desire to be a player there and wishes to maintain a base of influence from its territories in New Caledonia and French Polynesia...The French Navy, with its regular deployment of naval vessels, is one of the principal elements of our regional activities and of our presence in the Pacific.

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