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India, France and the Pacific: Where an old friend might get in the way of new partnerships
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy is slowly stretching to the far east and encompassing the Pacific Ocean as a key zone of interest. As the new kid on the block, Modi’s approach to the region has been shy and tentative, but appears earnest in its search for genuine and lasting partnerships. With 14 Pacific nations, five major non-independent inhabited territories, a sizeable Indian diaspora in Fiji (the legacy of the indenture system of the 19th century), as well as a throng of invested and sometimes anxious Pacific rim countries, Modi is spoilt for choice and well placed to act strategically.
One particular partnership that deserves particular attention in the Pacific, however, is India’s links with a European power: France. During their years in office, Modi and President Francois Hollande have strengthened an already long-standing relationship between France and India. The two leaders have engaged in a partnership of strategy and flattery: bestowing public honours on each other; issuing joint statements on defence, terrorism, investment and trade; and signalling a clear and close association for expanding engagement.
Perhaps surprisingly given their fraternity in the Indian Ocean, India and France have yet to articulate a partnership model in the Pacific arena. At first glance, it might seem like an obvious step for India to engage the four French bases in the Pacific (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and Clipperton Island) as well-placed stepping stones across the ocean, but due thought must be given to the implications of such an arrangement, and the potential risks.
One recent development that India must be mindful of is the decision at the 47th annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) to accept two of France’s Pacific territories (French Polynesia and New Caledonia) as full Forum members. The implications of this controversial decision are many; aside from adding yet another (arguably loaded) voice to the Pacific scuffle for regional cohesion, the memberships effectively validate France as a Pacific island power. It is yet to be seen how the Pacific island nations will negotiate this new political dynamic.
For India, the regional response to the PIF membership decision will determine whether an association with the French will hinder or assist India’s ambitions in the Pacific. Depending on the successive developments within Forum politics, and how the Forum Island Countries (FICs) characterise the two newest members in the Forum, India will need to decide whether to adjust, discard, or propagate the Indian Ocean model of cooperation into the Pacific region.
India must contextualise France in a region-specific sense because in the Pacific the French are inescapably associated with their colonial past and present. France was a brutal 19th and 20th century force, establishing protectorates and colonies throughout Oceania, and it still claims foreign control over the majority of these lands and seas, only relinquishing possession of New Hebrides (Vanuatu) in 1980. Significantly, pro-independence movements against the French are still being waged by Pacific islanders, most notably in New Caledonia and, to a certain extent, in French Polynesia. New Caledonia’s bid for independence from France will manifest in a 2018 referendum, and will be strongly campaigned for by the FLNKS (Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste), which is a recognised political entity within the active Melanesian subgrouping (see Melanesia Spearhead Group).
Back in 1971, Pacific island leaders rejected a role for France in Pacific politics when they split from the colonial-led South Pacific Commission (SPC) to form the independent South Pacific Forum (now the PIF) in 1971. This helps explain the controversy regarding PIF’s recent membership decisions.
Of course the Pacific is not alone in its colonial past. But ongoing and omnipresent threats to Pacific island sovereignty mean a higher-than-normal sensitivity to colonial histories and colonial realities. After all, in this region there remain not just recognised colonial territories, but also non-recognised colonial territories (West Papua), states of ‘compact association’, states of ‘free association’, states subject to external governance and control of air spaces, states reliant on Official Development Assistance (ODA) and states dependent on foreign investment and bail-outs. The Pacific also faces the possibility, and perhaps inevitability, of redefining sovereign rights without sovereign land: rising sea levels encroaching upon low-lying islands is a key source of anxiety and uncertainty.
In the Pacific, the fight for self-determination has not been triumphantly assigned to the annals of history but, rather, is a struggle that persists to the present day. It is part of everyday conversation; it feeds prejudices; it influences world views; and it dictates the partnerships states choose to purse and neglect.
No effective Pacific policy can discount such considerations and India needs to understand that direct association with France might impinge India’s ability to relate to the island countries: to their history; their priorities; and their fears for the future.
One way forward for India could be a tailored approach that distinguishes between ‘Pacific Partners’ and the ‘Pacific islands’. While support for France evidently exists within the PIF, it is likely to be pigeon-holed by the FICs into the Australia and New Zealand category of ‘others’, which restricts ability to act within the region. Indeed, the French are already firmly aligned with the Australia and New Zealand camp, evidenced by the signing of defence, security and humanitarian pacts in 2014 and 2015 (see FRANZ, also), and the strong support for France in the Forum from Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and John Key.
India’s positive relations with Australia, New Zealand and France are of course integral to its global agenda, but it is important that India does not present to the Pacific through the lens of a trilateral or quadrilateral arrangement with these ‘Pacific Partners’. India needs to play to its strength as a neutral power in its relations with Pacific island states.
The author is a research intern at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This commentary originally appeared in The Interpreter.
25 October 2016