The recent experience of France in the Pacific Islands provides some cautionary indicators for Australia about the potential effect of new players seeking engagement in the region, and the likely approaches of island leaders to them.
France is effectively the only remaining European power resident in the Pacific islands through its sovereign territories, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna and Clipperton Island. It sees itself both as a leading European power in the Pacific, and as an internal Pacific Islands regional power, based on its sovereignty there. The French territories occupy strategic positions relative to the Pacific Island states: New Caledonia and French Polynesia flank the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) region at the western and eastern ends respectively, with Wallis and Futuna at the centre. France’s uninhabited Clipperton Island lies north of the Equator just off the Mexican coast. Of the four, New Caledonia is undoubtedly France’s pre-eminent possession, site of its regional military headquarters and with strategic minerals (nickel, lithium, cobalt) and signs of petroleum and gas offshore. France has recognised in a series of recent assessments that its Pacific possessions represent strategic assets, making it the world’s number two maritime power (in terms of maritime territory at least) by virtue of their vast exclusive economic zones, and underpinning France’s claims to global leadership, and its scientific and technical, space and military roles.