What the unrest in New Caledonia means for the Indo Pacific and China's looming presence

The potential implications of recent protests in New Caledonia are best understood in the context of a broader framework of China’s increasing presence in the South Pacific island countries.

Mohd Huzaifa Khan May 24, 2024
Photo: Wikipedia

As the world watches the unfolding of new power dynamics in the South China Sea, a presumably less important South Pacific country has come under the grip of violent protests. New Caledonia is a French overseas territory. The country lies between Australia and Fiji, finding its place amongst the Pacific archipelagos. The unrest, which started after the French parliament passed an electoral reform bill for the archipelago, has raised eyebrows over the alleged meddling in riots by Azerbaijan. Analysts have warned French President Emmanuel Macron against violent repression of riots, lest China succeeds in capitalizing on the anti-colonial sentiments in the country. As the stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region monitor the events in New Caledonia, the chances of external interference - not completely unexpected from China - should not be ruled out. 

New Caledonia was annexed by France in 1853. In 1946, the territory was given the status of overseas territory of France. The indigenous Kanak people of the country constitute only 40 per cent of the total population of nearly 270,000. The rest of the people are either the descendants of white colonists or the new migrants from Europe. The demographic is a causing factor of conflict in the country, which has seen several referendums on independence from French control voted ‘No’ by the majority population. The pro-independence camp has rejected the bill that would expand the electorate to include the non-indigenous inhabitants of the territory, which will dilute the electoral power of Kanaks.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has recently made a statement alleging “some of the separatists have made a deal with Azerbaijan.” The diplomatic relations between Buka and Paris deteriorated after France’s passionate support for Azerbaijan’s rival Armenia in the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020 and 2023. Since then, Azerbaijan has openly courted and supported the anti-colonial movements in the French overseas territories. Last year in July, Azerbaijan hosted the separatist leaders from French overseas territories to form the Buka Initiative Group against French Colonialism (in Africa and other regions of the world). Azerbaijan flags were also sighted in the ongoing protests in Noumea, which has led the French government to issue statements warning Azerbaijan against any further interference.

Riots and its implications

The protests have now reached the stage of riots that have led to at least six casualties. France has declared martial rule and the French forces are moving fast to regain control of parts of the territory, including a highway linking the capital city of Noumea to a nearby airport, that have come under demonstrators’ control. France has flown more than 700 law enforcement officers to the archipelago, including its elite anti-terrorist squad. Despite its small population - and even fewer of them are protesting - the country has come under a civil war-like atmosphere. The state of emergency has been declared; airspace has been suspended; foreign nationals have been stranded; and the French soldiers patrol the streets in Noumea, which is considered the epicentre of the revolt.

The potential implications of recent protests in New Caledonia are best understood in the context of a broader framework of China’s increasing presence in the South Pacific island countries. The heightened maritime tensions with China on the one hand and the USA and its allies, including Taiwan, Philippines, Japan and Australia, on the other, have forced Beijing to move swiftly in its endeavour to establish security and economic ties with the small island states near the Indo-Pacific. The Melanesian Spearhead Group, with its members Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, met in August last year to deliberate on the prospects of security cooperation with China. The Solomon Islands is already China’s security partner after the two signed a series of security agreements in 2022. In January this year, Nauru conceded to the One China Policy, derecognising Taiwan as an independent country.

On the economic front, China has already made significant strides in the region, which has traditionally been considered the USA’s backyard by its allies’ presence there. Xi Jinping invited his Micronesian counterpart in April this year and the two sides released a joint statement reiterating Beijing’s support for the joint work on infrastructure, maritime transportation, aviation and fisheries. Several others, including Tonga, Niue, Kiribati and Samoa, have already joined the flagship Belt and Road Initiative, besides the Federated States of Micronesia. Further, China has become Vanuatu's largest external creditor. Chinese investments in the region have also seen an increasing trend in the past few years. 

Formation of Squad

On the other hand, the USA has been pushing for greater defence cooperation and interoperability of forces amongst allies in the Indo-Pacific. Along these lines has come about the formation of SQUAD, which includes the Philippines, Japan and Australia alongside the USA. SQUAD's openly stated aim is to protect international law and order in the Indo-Pacific by containing the aggrandising threats emanating from China.  

France’s foreign policy strategy in the Indo-Pacific has also received increased attention under President Emmanuel Macron, who announced it in Noumea in May 2018. It primarily relies on the country’s sovereign presence in the region in the form of overseas territories that it promises to protect through its nuclear deterrence capability. France has also sought to build closer defence ties with Japan, with the former strongly pushing for a reciprocal access agreement with the latter. It is in this context that several analysts have warned France against taking a heavy-handed approach towards anti-electoral reform protests in New Caledonia lest China gets an opportunity to weaponise the anti-colonial sentiments there. A Pacific analyst from The Australian National University expressed the same concerns, as he mentioned, "It (French repression of protesters) will play very well because China has been discovering some of the colonial history of the Pacific.”

This tosses a question that might land either way: Will China move to weaponise the anti-colonial sentiments in New Caledonia?

(The author is a student of Master's in Politics and International Relations at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. Views are personal. He can be contacted at mohdhuzaifakhan62@gmail.com )

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