New Caledonia: How the French colony could become a global flashpoint if it chooses independence

By Darshan Singh Brar

NEW Caledonia ultimately chose to remain a part of France last month, albeit by a reduced margin compared to the 2018 referendum.

It was a vote share that almost mirrored the Brexit vote, with 47% voting yes and 53% rejecting the proposal on an 86% turnout.

As outlined in the Nouméa accord, another poll can be summoned in 2022.

This is a victory for peace in the Pacific and regional stability. 

But why is the issue of the referendum such a controversial topic?

We will explore this in the following geopolitical analysis, which will show how, in the current turmoil facing today’s world, independent New Caledonia could become a flashpoint.

For an overview of the local situation, modern New Caledonia has, among other things, the following economic resources:

  • More than 7 million tons of Nickel.
  • Touristic resources.
  • A relatively important fishing industry – 166 million tons were exported in August 2020 – including the notable blue shrimp.
  • Calcium carbonates, extracted from coral.

The mining resources in particular, directly make it an important point of interest and contention. 

These resources are further supplemented by public resources from France in the form of:

  • An important military presence and its network of contractors (all branches of the French army have bases here, including an important base of France’s Pacific fleet).
  • Subsidies from the French State amounting to 1.3 billion euros as of 2018.

An independent New Caledonia would at least, see a major disruption to this source of revenues.

Overall these resources could potentially become a source of great tension (in particular the mineral ones) by putting fuel on existing ones between the various Kanak tribes, which will add itself to the complex ethnic question of the territory.

How would New Caledonia’s culturally diverse population factor into independence?

This ethnic question and in particular the important population of Europeans and Asians is why New Caledonia, despite being part of France’s second colonial empire, remained French like the members of the first one (French Antilles, Reunion Island, except French India, ceded back).

The ethnic and economic question may further deteriorate, when considering that the FLNKS (national liberation front Kanak and socialist), the main independentist faction, is an unstable coalition of parties, including Marxist factions (the Palika and UPM components) that could tear each other apart following independence.

The presence of Marxists is especially worrying as they could, in line with their ideology and following similar track records, try to nationalize the local mining companies.

This could, in turn, spur action from the island’s immediate neighbours – who happen to be Australia and New Zealand.

The former is less partial to certain ideologies taking root in its immediate environment, which it controlled as colonies up until 1975 (Papua New Guinea).

As such, considering the many uses of nickel in steel, battery production, and many militarized applications (armor, various turbines) not forgetting its use in desalinization, it is certain that Australia will intervene overtly or covertly.

But Australia is not the only one – China could also be a contender for the direct/indirect control of a newly independent New Caledonia.

The territory boasts a Chinese community, which it might use as a justification for intervention if it does not find common ground with the Marxist elements of the FLNKS. It has an interest to secure the nickel and calcium production and could find if winning influence over the territory, a new country to recognize its “sovereignty” over Taiwan as well as a mean of pressure over Japan. The land of the rising sun is one of New Caledonia’s major markets for minerals and foodstuff.

In any case, this does not bode well for the island’s biodiversity, should it fall under the control of foreign interests. The case of overmined Nauru island comes to mind.

The backlash of a newly independent New Caledonia would also have a huge impact on France. It could force a reorganization of its military and economic presence (New Caledonia is a major source of employment for French Polynesia and Wallis & Futuna. The loss of a major EEZ would also be important, not factoring, of course, the rise of local independentist movements. Finally, the handling of the negotiation and the answer to the ethnic question will have a major impact on the current French regime.

We mustn’t forget also that the current political situation in France is tense, to say the least, seeing an unpopular government (35% of trust, according to a September poll) letting go of sovereign territory could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Should the ethnic question of New Caledonia explode, it could spur a traumatic evacuation not seen since the end of French Indochina (1954) and Algeria (1962).

Darshan Singh Brar covers political and international affairs relating to France.

Featured Image: GeorgeLouis @ Wikimedia Commons

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