#6 - In Brief - New Caledonia, France’s Foothold in the Pacific - Competition in Oceania
HMS VICTORIOUS moored in Noumea, New Caledonia, 1943.
French Republic and Overseas Territories, 2022
New Caledonia has recently voted (in a third referendum on the same topic) to remain part of France, paving the way for a larger French role in the Pacific. Given China’s massive naval buildup, Paris must begin executing on a realistic strategy to protect its 1.6 million citizens living in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
French plans already suffered a setback with the previous announcement of AUKUS and in particular the cancellation of the France-Australia attack submarine deal. Cancellation meant the loss of a roughly $60 billion submarine contract that would have guaranteed some level of French influence throughout the Pacific, as Australia would be tied to French attack subs for a generation (Paris already builds the Scorpene-class sub for India).
Following right on the heels of the failed sub deal, an independent New Caledonia would have thrown France’s position in the Pacific into doubt. French forward military bases would have to be pushed backwards 2,800 miles to French Polynesia (or 1,300 miles to Wallis and Fatuna, neither of which is a robust basing location).
Historically, New Caledonia hosted bases the allies employed during WWII to win the battle of the Coral Sea and push Imperial Japan out of Melanesia. A large population and land area (relative to the region), natural resources, and strategic location between Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia, and Melanesia make the ports of Nouméa (the capital) a logical choice for both commercial and military traffic. The WWII-era bases supported fleet operations as well as the forward basing and training/retraining of ground troops.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
The biggest winner in this situation is the US. If New Caledonia had voted for independence, the island would have become an even bigger target for Beijing’s influence operations. With the vote to stay, one of Washington’s NATO allies (France) retains its Pacific presence, but as a result of AUKUS does not have the political power to forge a path independent of Washington.
Taiwan wins because another stepping stone remains in friendly hands. One of the reasons Beijing and Taipei have fought diplomatically over pacific island countries and territories is that the ports on these islands act as a lifeline from the US to Taiwan. Without access to these islands, it would be much more difficult for the US to support Taiwan during a crisis.
New Caledonia also serves as a convenient traffic intersection between the US, Australia, and New Zealand. It allows the US to push forces roughly 3,500 miles forward to a position both at the entrance of Melanesia and commanding the Coral Sea. This ensures that lines of communication to Australia and New Zealand remain open.