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New bases for New Caledonia?

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3 December 2009 12:45

Nic Maclellan is author of a new Nautilus Institute paper on the implications for New Caledonia of the 2008 French Defence White paper and the new Australia-France Defence Co-operation Agreement.

Since its 2008 Defence White Paper, the French Government has announced significant changes to its military base structure in the Pacific islands, as part of a broader rationalisation of military deployments around the world.

With the proposed closure of installations in French Polynesia made redundant by the end of nuclear testing, and the reduction of troop numbers in the region, the French armed forces are planning to make New Caledonia a 'regional hub' for military operations – even though New Caledonia is scheduled to hold a referendum on its future political status after 2014.

In an interview during his September 2008 visit to Australia, French Defence Minister Hervé Morin said:

France is in the process of restructuring its defence capabilities and we have decided that New Caledonia will become a major presence and major base in the Pacific. We decided to do this because New Caledonia is close to Australia and for us this base in New Caledonia will be the means through which we will grow our cooperation with Australia.

Under the new Australia-France Defence Co-operation Agreement (DCA) framework, Australia and France are negotiating a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA), and Morin added that the MLSA will 'allow Australia to use New Caledonia as a base for logistic support (mainly for naval forces, but for all Australian operations) and it's well understood equally that Australia could be a point of similar support for French forces, in particular naval forces.'

With this increased Australia-France military cooperation, it's no surprise that some Kanak leaders are a bit anxious as to what's going on!

In a recent interview in the regional magazine Islands Business, a key leader of the independence movement (Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste [FLNKS]) stated he is 'fundamentally opposed' to French military restructuring in the region, and 'astonished' about the lack of consultation from Australia and New Zealand as they forge closer ties to the French military.

Roch Wamytan, a former FLNKS President who heads the FLNKS group in New Caledonia's Congress, stated: 'Australia and New Zealand have long supported us on our path to emancipation. So I'm really astonished that Australia and New Zealand are engaged in this without even talking to us.'

On his first formal visit to New Caledonia in November 2008, former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Duncan Kerr flew aboard a French military aircraft – a choice of transport that raised eyebrows amongst some independence leaders. Attending a meeting of French High Commissioners from around the region, he lauded defence cooperation as 'a very good and successful part of our common relationship.'

Kerr welcomed the move towards 'greater autonomy' for New Caledonia – but many Kanaks want independence, rather than greater autonomy within the French republic.

Under the Noumea Accord, Paris is transferring legislative and administrative powers to Noumea, but France retains control of defence, foreign policy, currency, justice and public order. After 2014, voters will decide whether these 'sovereign powers' will be transferred to Noumea. But members of the FLNKS are concerned that the relocation of military forces to New Caledonia will be used as a justification for an ongoing French presence — especially as senior commanders have talked about the military's ongoing role into the 2020s.

As New Caledonian politicians seek full membership of the Pacific Islands Forum, Canberra's attitude to these changes is vital. But rather than analysing the effects of increased Australia-France defence cooperation on political developments in New Caledonia, Canberra and Paris are focused on the bigger picture, including military co-operation in Afghanistan and the arms sales which made Australia the second largest purchaser of French weaponry in 2005-06. There was no mention of New Caledonia when the Australia-France Defence Co-operation Agreement was analysed by parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties in 2008.

The belief that the Noumea Accord process will run smoothly to its conclusion needs to be tested, rather than just assumed as the basis for policy-making. Maybe it's time to put New Caledonia back on the map.

 Photo by Flickr user ptgreg, used under a Creative Commons license.

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