Kanaky—The Australian connection

25 May 2024
Tom Bramble

The fight to defeat colonialism in Kanaky confronts not just the Macron government but the Australian government as well. Successive Australian governments have turned a blind eye to France’s defiance of UN General Assembly resolutions to end its colonial rule in Kanaky and French Polynesia, and the Albanese government will be very concerned by the riots in Nouméa.

France’s ability to maintain its colonies in the Pacific is crucial to its credibility as a world power. Military considerations are to the fore, but that these colonies give France exclusive economic zones of 7 million square kilometres in the Pacific, potentially rich in minerals, is also a factor. This is the context in which Macron’s attempt to rig the electoral system in Kanaky takes place.

Given Australia’s own neocolonial interests in Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, Nauru and Fiji, and its arrogance towards the Pacific Islands Forum, it is hardly surprising that Australia should regard those fighting French colonialism as a threat. Australia sees France as a partner in maintaining imperialist supremacy in the Pacific, and in recent times, great power competition has come to the fore in shaping relations between the two countries.

China’s attempt to extend its influence in the South Pacific, evident in a joint security agreement with the Solomons and new aid packages for a string of Pacific nations, has brought Australia and France closer together to resist Chinese advances.

Successive defence white papers, and in particular Australia’s AUKUS agreement with the US and Britain, are concerned with pushing back against China. With the US tied up in Europe and the Middle East, Australia has an even more crucial role in reinforcing US power in the Pacific. Good relations with France can only help in this regard. In May 2018, while visiting Australia, Macron announced an India-Australia-France axis in the Indo-Pacific region.

Although the 2021 decision by the Morrison government to dump the contract to purchase French nuclear submarines in favour of US submarines caused a chill in the relationship between Australia and France, the Albanese government has done its best to put things back on an even keel.

In a series of meetings and joint statements, Australia has made clear its desire for a strengthened French presence in the Pacific and for closer cooperation between the two countries.

Shortly after winning the 2022 election, the Albanese government settled the breach of the submarine contract with a payment of €555 million to the French Naval Group. Albanese told a press conference, “France is of course an Indo-Pacific nation, and we share a commitment to a global order based upon the rule of law and shared principles”. No mention was made of France’s obligations regarding decolonisation under the rule of law and UN principles of self-determination.

In July 2022, the two governments got down to business, publishing a communique setting out plans for military cooperation, joint military exercises, reciprocal access to military facilities, industrial and technological defence partnerships and the development of space defence facilities. This was formalised in February last year as a “road map”, a “new agenda for bilateral cooperation”. One of the first fruits of this agreement was the involvement of French armed forces stationed in Kanaky in the Talisman Sabre military exercises in Queensland last July.

In the same month, Australia joined France in abstaining on key provisions of the annual UN General Assembly decolonisation resolution, objecting to clauses requiring administering powers such as France to end military activities in their non-self-governing territories.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong regularly expresses her support for the “Pacific family” and in 2022 told the UN General Assembly, “As Foreign Minister, I am determined to see First Nations perspectives at the heart of Australian foreign policy”. However, Australian support for self-determination of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific, a prerequisite for any relationship between equals, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Australia is deepening militarism and nuclear proliferation in a region that is still living with the health and environmental legacies of more than 315 US, British and French nuclear tests.

French colonialism in the Pacific has to go, but that will also require a fight against the Australian government since Australia is equally culpable in denying the people of the region their right to live in peace and to determine their own destinies.

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