When discussing Washington's partners in the Pacific, the conversation usually focuses on coordination with Australia and New Zealand. What is often overlooked is the role France plays in the region. The fact that France holds three territories in the South Pacific-New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia-accounting for about one third of the Pacific Islands' combined exclusive economic zone (EEZ), is frequently forgotten.
France's territories have historically been isolated from the rest of the region by a linguistic barrier and their unique trading relationship with Europe. France also limited its own opportunities to engage the independent states of the Pacific by directing aid exclusively to its territories. This situation began to change in 1996 with France's decision to cease nuclear testing in the Pacific-long a point of contention with the rest of the region. France has signaled a willingness to participate in regional politics and has become a force to watch as it more actively engages the independent island states and reaches new milestones in decolonization.
The United States' relationship with France in the Pacific remains secondary to its partnerships with Australia and New Zealand. Few U.S. government statements even mention France as a Pacific partner, despite the two countries' strong trans-Atlantic cooperation. There are three main reasons for this. First, France's Pacific colonies are isolated from primary U.S. concerns in the region-too far away from the United States' territories and associated states to the north, too stable to engender concern, and historically too detached from the rest of the region.
Second, France lacks significant strategic resources in the region, particularly since most of the French military presence left the Pacific once nuclear testing ceased. And third, engaging too closely could shine a light on the United States' own controversial history of nuclear testing and relations with its Pacific territories.
U.S.-French cooperation in the Pacific has mostly been limited to the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group, in which the United States, Australia, and New Zealand work with France on shared interests such as fisheries management. France also joined Australia, New Zealand, and other partner countries in contributing personnel to the U.S. Navy-led Pacific Partnership annual missions in 2011 and 2012, which provided aid and health care to nations across the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Pacific Partnership 2013 will see the inclusion of personnel from the French Armed Forces New Caledonia.
But the limited attention the United States pays to French activities in the Pacific needs to change. Although France has common interests with Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, it has taken an independent approach to policy in the region, particularly in its engagement with Fiji. While the United States, Australia, and New Zealand have sought to pressure Fiji via isolation since its 2006 military coup, France has been more forthcoming in its engagement. France has actively supported the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), hosting a mission in New Caledonia in August. The MSG offers Fiji a partial alternative to the U.S.-favored Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), from which Fiji was suspended in 2006. France in October also began to strengthen trade ties with Fiji.
In addition, the French territories in the Pacific are slowly gaining more autonomy, which will force the United States to pay them greater attention. December 6 marked the start of the final stage of the Noumea Accord, which dictates a staged and irreversible transfer of sovereignty from France to New Caledonia, culminating in a referendum on full independence in 2014 or 2018. The region is carefully watching the implementation of the accord, as it could offer an important precedent for French Polynesia and perhaps even the United States' Pacific territories. If the referendum produces a fully independent New Caledonia, it could significantly alter the power dynamics in Melanesia. The increasing autonomy of French territories in the Pacific will lessen France's influence in the region, but it could also make French policy more independent and less likely to follow Australia's and New Zealand's lead.
The need to engage France more actively has not gone unnoticed in Canberra and Wellington. With disagreements about nuclear testing swept aside, Australia and New Zealand have rapidly improved relations with France. Recent signs suggest the three are pursuing closer ties at least in part as a reaction to the growing number of new actors entering the region. As developed democracies, France, Australia, and New Zealand share similar interests in the Pacific, including boosting stability, international norms of human rights, and economic prosperity.
Australia and France reached an important landmark on January 19, 2012, with the signing of a joint statement of strategic partnership that gave significant focus to their cooperation in the South Pacific. The document touches on all aspects of the bilateral relationship, but most notably it reaffirms shared global interests, pledges a joint commitment to Pacific institutions, and promises closer coordination on disaster relief, security, and aid in the region.
Other recent signs of warming ties with France included the development of institutional relationships between French and Australian universities and strengthened ties between New Zealand and French Pacific science agencies in 2011. Australia and New Zealand offered a particularly controversial signal of their ties to France in August, helping to block French Polynesia's bid for reinstatement to the United Nations decolonization list.
Not only is France the less-talked-about power in the Pacific; it is also a force in transition. How it handles the looming decolonization of New Caledonia will have broad implications for how it is perceived in the region and how long it will maintain a regional presence. But no matter what, the shifts in French influence will alter the landscape of power in the South Pacific and affect the interests of the United States and its partners.