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The South Pacific in France's Defence White Paper

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COMMENTS

9 July 2008 14:28

What is noticeable about the South Pacific in the French White Paper on Defence released by President Nicolas Sarkozy on 17 June is the rarity of any reference to it. The White Paper refers to Australia as a valued partner and briefly to its own collectivities in the Pacific zone (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna), but little more.

This is surprising in view of the White Paper's reference to the growing importance of Asia and the need for Europe to exert greater effort to explain and familiarize its public about Asia.  The Paper actually refers to the 'distance' ('éloignement') of Asia, hardly the perspective of a France present in Asia's southern ocean.

But perhaps the omission is unsurprising given the White Paper's efforts to stick rigorously to its identified geographic priority, an 'arc of instability' – no, not the Melanesian arc we know so well, but rather a huge span stretching from Mauritania in western Africa around through the Middle East and across to the Indian Ocean. And when you consider the importance the Paper places on partnerships, including specifically with Australia, the lack of emphasis on our own immediate region presents opportunities for us in working with the French.

Practical effect in French Pacific entities

The White Paper prioritizes defence activities such as intelligence capacity, prevention, dissuasion, protection and intervention (the latter only in a multinational context). In practice this translates into more resources for intelligence-gathering, a reduction in personnel and tighter equipment priorities. 

In our region, New Caledonia will host the pre-eminent French military presence, with capabilities to intervene rapidly in the Pacific zone in case of crises. Aero-maritime capacity will predominate. But somewhat paradoxically there appears to be no change to the current situation whereby the Pacific naval command remains with the French miitary commander in French Polynesia. This despite a reduction in military personnel in both New Caledonia and French Polynesia, with a foreshadowed reduction by half in French Polynesia alone (from 2400 to 1100 between 2011 and 2015). 

Numbers of police and civil security personnel will be strengthened. This will be important especially in New Caledonia. The successful, democratically-based Matignon/Nouméa Accords, which have presided over peaceful economic development in New Caledonia and managed Kanak independence aspirations since 1988, will come to their scheduled conclusion in 2014 to 2018. Challenges to French sovereignty could have a spin-off effect to its other entitities of more strategic importance, such as Guyane, the site of France's space launch activities.

Whether the emphasis on space will mean an enhanced role for its collectivities spanning the vast central South Pacific region is not addressed in the Paper.

Partnership with Australia

The Paper emphasizes the importance of partnerships with regional countries, specifically mentioning Australia. A growing area of cooperation will be in intelligence. The French collectivities in our neighborhood will be expected to implement the new priority of intelligence collection in a world where the principal threats are seen to come from terrorism and attacks on communication rather than direct military threats to territory. The recently announced disbanding of New Caledonia's army intelligence unit sits oddly with this new framework.  

The new arrangements do mean, however, that priority will presumably continue to be given to cooperation with Australia on issues such as money-laundering, regional counter-terrorism activity, drug trafficking, health threats and joint surveillance activities along with New Zealand under the umbrella of the FRANZ (France-Australia-New Zealand cooperation).

The White Paper underlines the importance of interoperability. We can assume that the annual joint exercises France undertakes with Australia and New Zealand, as well as representational naval visits and flag-flying in the South Pacific, will continue. However, the effect of re-ordered equipment priorities within a tighter budget is yet to be spelt out.

The Paper highlights the continued importance of the French nuclear deterrent as a national priority, but reassuringly for the region specifies non-proliferation as a policy objective and notes that France is the only state to have dismantled its nuclear testing apparatus (formerly at Moruroa in French Polynesia). The Paper  recommends strengthening the Raratonga Treaty, which would establish the South Pacific as a nuclear-free zone.

Just how the new Euro-centric focus will affect our regional peacekeeping cooperation with France is not clear. France is an increasingly valuable local peacekeeping partner. It was the first of our friends to respond when we called for participants in the INTERFET force in East Timor. It let us know it would participate in RAMSI in the Solomon Islands, although did not do so out of respect for regional sensitivities. France also provided logistical support in Noumea during the last Fiji coup, as a staging point for vessels we were sending to Fiji in case of consular evacuation, and as a medical evacuation point after the Blackhawk accident. 

Omission but opportunity

While the paucity of reference to the South Pacific is disappointing, in the more austere French defence budgetary climate, and with its emphasis on partnerships and intelligence capacity, the White Paper creates strategic opportunities for us. When our own White Paper appears later this year, we should consider increasing our intelligence links with France. Such support would demonstrate our appreciation and desire for continued French support in regional exercises, surveillance and response to natural emergencies. 

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