Question of New Caledonia’s Independence From France Draws in China
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
by Paul Antonopoulos, independent geopolitical analyst
New Caledonia, a South Pacific French territory comprising of dozens of islands, has experienced unrest between pro-French loyalists on one side, and separatists who demand independence on the other. The separatist takeover of a nickel plant, which currently belongs to Brazilian company Vale, has sparked renewed tensions between loyalists and separatists, with the latter looking towards China to support their post-independence goals.
The plant was invaded on December 10 by separatists and is currently not operating. Pro-independence protesters are increasing their blockade and sabotage against the plant and oppose the takeover of the site by Singaporean company Trafigura, a commodity trader.
The Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), an alliance of pro-independence political parties, made an offer on January 16. The FLNKS want a partnership with a “major Chinese group specializing in nickel hydrometallurgy.” During a rally on January 16, Daniel Goa, a spokesperson for the FLNKS, proposed that three New Caledonian provinces that hold a 5% stake in the industrial site takeover 100% of its capital before “setting-up with an industrial group and a local stake revised to 51%.”
“They [the separatists] chain together all the mistakes that we fear in the event of independence. They show themselves incapable of managing the economy, incapable of managing social tensions… In addition, they are swallowed up by the Chinese,” said Bastien Vandendyck, a specialist in Pacific geopolitics from the consultancy firm Vae Solis.
The presence of a Chinese group in the nickel plant would mark a turning point in New Caledonia’s relationship with Beijing, and the elite of pro-French loyalists fear their monopoly on the economy will end.
If the 2020 referendum for independence was successful, in which loyalists won with 53.26% of the vote, it would have greatly benefited Beijing as it would have strengthened its influence in the region. The Belt and Road Initiative is already strongly developed in many Pacific Island countries, such as Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Samoa. The indigenous Kanak people, who are overwhelmingly separatists, would thus be allies against French influence in a region that is nearly 17,000km away from Paris and 8,600km away from Beijing.
The loyalist success in the referendum means that Chinese ambitions are held back, at least until the next referendum in 2022. But tensions are still high in New Caledonia. During Sunday’s press conference by the Les Loyalistes (The Loyalists) coalition, Virginie Ruffenach, group leader in Congress and a woman of European-descent, said: “From now on, that’s enough! We are witnessing a coup d’état by the FLNKS which wants to put New Caledonia to the mat.”
Beyond the possible Chinese industrial participation, it is one of many proposals made by the separatists. According to Vandendyck, local communities in New Caledonia simply do not have the means for a recovery project to relaunch the plant as it requires €150-170 million. However, he ignores that China would be extremely interested in footing the bill, especially if it gains new access to nickel, an essential mineral in making stainless steel, batteries and other items.
The second major problem, according to him, is the incompetence of the separatists in international finance. According to him, even if the separatists “absolutely master the entire industrial process […] negotiating and optimizing the sale of ore” is not their specialty. He reflected that the project would resemble a previous offer presented by the separatists to Korea Zinc, which he described as a “phantom offer” which made “half the people who knew the ins and outs” of the deal laugh.
However, the arrogance of Vandendyck’s statement against the separatists, in which the majority are Kanaks, the largest ethnic group in New Caledonia at about 41% of the population, demonstrates why such a strong independence movement exists. The Kanaks have mostly been sidelined from accessing global trade, which is why they do not have the same set of skills as European-descended New Caledonians. The indigenous Kanaks have a lower socio-economic status and lack involvement in the economy, which they perceive as French exploitation. Though GDP per capita is a massive $38,921 thanks to nickel, there is significant income inequality. It is for this very reason that the Kanaks hedge their bets on Chinese support, not just monetarily and infrastructurally, but to also train the population in modern economics and trade.
New Caledonia will hold a third and final referendum in 2022 after conducting referendums in 2018 and 2020. These referendums were in accordance to the Nouméa Accord. Although the second referendum only achieved 46.74% of the vote in favor of independence, this is an improvement from 2018 where it achieved 43.33%. 2022 could see New Caledonia become an independent state, which will likely mean an expulsion of European mining companies and the entrance of China to develop the archipelago and expand the Belt and Road Initiative, and this is the biggest fear of pro-French loyalists.
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