China factor in New Caledonia anti-independence vote

new caledonia

In a referendum Dec. 12, voters in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia rejected independence by an overwhelming 96%. The vote was the final of three mandated by the 1998 Nouméa Accord with the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), which had for years been waging an armed resistance. But this may not end the matter—the vote was this time boycotted by the FLNKS and its indigenous Kanak followers, who vowed to carry on the struggle. “We are pursuing our path of emancipation,” Louis Mapou, New Caledonia’s pro-independence president, told the New York Times.

In sharp contrast to the last two polls, in 2018 and 2020, voter turn-out was under 44%.

Kanak leaders had called for a postponement of the referendum until next year because a late-breaking COVID-19 wave had disproportionately affected their people. They argued that lengthy Kanak mourning traditions made political campaigning impossible. “The French state is disrespecting the relationship between the Kanak living and dead,” said Daniel Goa, head of the Union Calédonienne, the largest member of the FLNKS independence coalition. “The decolonization process is going ahead without respecting the people who must be decolonized.”

After more than 150 years of French colonization, the Kanaks make up only some 40% of the population.

Coverage of the vote almost uniformly stressed fears by the métros (recent arrivals from France) of Chinese designs on the archipelago—and especially its mineral resources. New Caledonia has one of the world’s largest reserves of nickel, vital for production of the batteries used in electric cars. Earlier this year, Tesla signed a deal to become a partner in New Caledonia’s Goro nickel mine. But China is now the top destination for the territory’s mineral exports, and the third destination for its nickel, after South Korea and Japan.

The fast-growing Chinese role in the archipelago is noted in a recent report by the Overseas Issuing Institute (IEOM). This is the body that issues the CFP franc, the currency for French holdings in the Pacific—now known only by its initials, as the original name, “French Colonial Pacific,” is something of an embarassing archaism. The report notes that in 2010, China accounted for 4% of overall New Caledonian exports; the figure now stands at 57%. The nickel company that is majority-owned by the government of the territory’s North Province, the Société Minière du Sud Pacifique, recently entered into a partnership with China’s Yichuan Nickel Industry, a subsidiary of Jilin-based Tonghua Jianxin Technology.

The Kanak pro-independence forces evidently view Chinese designs as (at the very least) no worse than French. “We are not afraid of China. It is France, not it, which colonized us. It does not bother us too much,” independence leader Roch Wamytan, now president of New Caledonia’s congress, told Le Monde last year.

In contrast, the loyalist president of the South Province, Sonia Backès, told Politico: “We know well the way the Chinese work: It’s little by little, with small economic installations to finally generate a dependence on Chinese funds and presence. And then this dependence generates a form of blackmail…and economic colonization.”

The New Caledonia question has also become a political ballon de football in the French métropole. Far-right presidential aspirant Eric Zemmour released a video bashing the political elite for not fighting hard enough to keep the archipelago, and for generally allowing French influence in the Pacific to decline. In a completely unsubtle reference to China, Zemmour warned that New Caledonia and its natural resources are “coveted by foreign powers.”

It is painful to see the Kanak self-determination struggle become a pawn in the Great Power game. Foreign coverage of the vote reveals how (as usual) distorted perceptions on the question cut both ways. The otherwise good and informative Politico account goes with the regrettable headline: “Chinese bogeyman looms over New Caledonia’s independence vote.” Is China really just a “bogeyman,” given its fast-growing and neo-mercantilist footprint throughout the Asia-Pacific region, and its evident ambitions to establish hegemonic control over critical new-tech resources such as nickel, lithium and rare earths?

On the other side of the coin, NBC News slapped this headline on an AP story: “New Caledonia votes to stay in France amid boycott by separatists.” We could see calling pro-independence forces “separatists” if they were in Bordeaux, Brittany or even Corsica. But Melanesia? C’mon.

Map via Geology.com