19 September 2016



The member States of the (Pacific Islands) Forum (PIF) may have made a tactical misstep by granting full membership to the French colonies in apparent exchange for promises of closer economic cooperation and other favourable measures. Given the obvious dominance of Australia and New Zealand in the PIF, the admission of France through its colonies serves to further dilute the political power of the Pacific Small Island States (P-SIDS) within the organisation. This could not have been an intended goal of the P-SIDS. 

It was no secret that both (current French) President Francois Hollande and his predecessor (former French President) Nicolas Sarkozy had repeatedly stated openly that membership of the French colonies in international organizations is "on behalf of the French State," so it is clear that these colonies do not have the requisite international personality to make sovereign decisions in their own right as a full member of such an international, political organization. 

The associate membership status in the Forum, which was already enjoyed by these French colonies, as well as by the U.S. dependencies in the Pacific, was created precisely to permit participation by non-self-governing territories, but limit their influence on Forum decisionmaking. The associate membership category of participation is standard in many regional and international organisations for non sovereign territories, and was the appropriate level of participation for a colony whose foreign policy is dictated by the French State. That is, until now. 

Whatever benefits to be derived from this extraordinary decision may pale by comparison to the leverage gained by the French in their geo-strategic plans for the Pacific, and the unintended consequence of the PIF being used as a vehicle in the global chess match of blocking the expansion of Chinese influence in the region. A security analyst expanded on this theme in an interview with Radio New Zealand (below).


New Forum members about reining in Fiji

14 September 2016 
A security analyst says one of the key motives for France's effective addition to the Pacific Islands Forum is to stem the impact of Fiji's Frank Bainimarama. After years of lobbying, France has effectively become a member with the admission of its territories, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.Don Wiseman asked Paul Buchanan of 36th Parallel Assessments why the Forum has moved this way.


PAUL BUCHANAN: The immediate game is the power struggle between Frank Bainimarama and the Pacific Islands Forum. There have traditionally been divisions between Melanesians and Polynesians within the PIF and within the South Pacific council as well. And Bainimarama has been trying to capitalise on this by developing alternative groups to the PIF which he thinks are dominated by the colonial powers, Australia and New Zealand in particular. And he has lobbied for their expulsion from the PIF.
The counter-ploy, which has been building for over a year now, is to bring the French in because the French represent New Caledonia and French Polynesia diplomatically and militarily even though both those territories have a considerable degree of autonomy in their internal affairs. What that means is that we now have three, if you would, western powers, dominant powers, now sitting at PIF as full members. And we have to remember that the French Pacific Army is based in New Caledonia.
There are 8000 French troops based in New Caledonia and the French Pacific Navy is based in French Polynesia. This is not coincidental that the French have tried to get into what some would argue  is the premier inter-governmental organisation in the South Pacific. Because Fiji is the tip of a spear of Chinese influence projected into the South Pacific through Commodore Bainimarama the Chinese have a defacto, if indirect diplomatic representative and it is their interest as much as his own interest that come into play in these sorts of manoeuvrings. So the second game, is a game by proxy between the Chinese and Australia and New Zealand and now the French. And that is where things get interesting because why would the French want to reassert themselves as full members. And it seems to me that that is because there is an increasingly assertive Chinese presence. Not only diplomatically, not only economically, but increasingly militarily in the region that is facilitated in part by the close association of Fiji with China in the wake of the coup of 2006, the sanctions that were imposed on Fiji as a result of that and the declining influence of its traditional partners of Australia and New Zealand in particular but the United States as well and the rise of China as its foremost interlocutor on all three dimensions of strategic power. And it remains to be seen whether the entrance of the French will harden the divisions between Polynesians and Melanesians, or at least harden the divisions between the Pacific Island Forum and Fiji.
DON WISEMAN: Well what do you think?
PB: I think it will. I think that contrary to Australia and New Zealand the French play hard ball. The French can be very diplomatic. They can use very subtle mechanisms of statecraft but I have a feeling that dealing with the likes of Bainimarama they will not be subtle and their approach to him and his attempts to usurp traditional prerogatives not so much of the French, New Zealanders and Australians in the South Pacific.
 But the established inter-governmental forms that such as the PIF and the SPC. That I think is seen as a threat and perhaps it is because those organisations are seen to be more western friendly although the voting record of the PIF in the UN would indicate otherwise. But also because of the preoccupation with this growing Chinese presence and the concern is, is that if they don't push back in some measure, then much like the China Sea, the South Pacific is increasingly going to become a Chinese lake. And the French among others are very alarmed by that prospect. And I think that this diplomatic ploy, if you will, is part and parcel of their response.
DW: Yet the likes of Mr Bainimarama he could continue down his merry way with the various other organisations that he has been building up with some success over these last four or five years. Meantime the Pacific Islands Forum seems to have almost waned somewhat. It would appear to be a lesser of an organisation than it once was. And now this move here is really undermining its basic tenet for existing, which was to keep the older colonial powers out of the Pacific.
PB: That is a very good point, but that tells you why any international agreement or treaty is never written in stone. Times are fluid and with fluid times comes changes in the orientation of players and I think that what we are seeing here, and I absolutely agree that it was a moribund organisation which allowed Bainimarama to exploit its weakness and the squabbling between the smaller members. That has now elicited a a response where the French inclusion clearly signals that there will be a renewed emphasis on the activities of the PIF and perhaps people will start to get very serious about giving it things such as enforcement power for the treaties and agreements that it enacts.
And we may even see it begin to adopt a policy of providing some degree of security muscle it does not have at this point and I say that only because one of the objectives of the Commodore within the MSG was to create a regional peace keeping force that in his vision would intervene in the domestic politics of island states in the event of civil war or even more minor cases of unrest.
That didn't go over well at all with many of the island states but particularly Australia and New Zealand and the French. There is a lot harder edge to French diplomacy in the South Pacific and that edge has a military component to it. And I think that with the French inclusion we may actually see a sort of wake up and take notice within the PIF that its days are numbered unless it starts to act, not only as an effective organisation on its own but also as an effective counterbalance to the initiatives being proposed by Fiji.

SEE ALSO:  France in Forum to counter China influence