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Editorial: New Caledonia referendum result contributes to stability in Pacific

  • December 16, 2021
  • , The Japan News , 11:43 a.m.
  • English Press

Japan cannot ignore developments in New Caledonia, which serves as a base to support France’s Indo-Pacific strategy. French President Emmanuel Macron’s government needs to address the complaints of local people and contain confusion among them.

 

A referendum asking local residents to decide whether to become independent from France was held in New Caledonia, a special collectivity of France in the South Pacific. About 96% of voters opposed independence, and it was decided to remain part of France.

 

The indigenous people, who account for 40% of the population of about 280,000, are mostly engaged in traditional agriculture and fisheries. They have led the independence movement due to their dissatisfaction with the gap between rich and poor, and have been in conflict with residents of European descent who want New Caledonia to remain as part of France.

 

Under an agreement reached by the French government with both pro-independence and anti-independence groups, up to three referendums on independence were to be held by 2022. Following such votes in 2018 and 2020, independence was also rejected in the third round of voting this time.

 

Reversing expectations of a close race, a wide margin appeared because pro-independence groups called for a boycott of the vote. Voter turnout was just 43%.

 

Pro-independence groups asked the French government to postpone the vote because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but the request was denied. For this reason, many members of pro-independence groups do not accept the referendum defeat.

 

In fact, they probably wanted to postpone the vote until they were sure of victory because they would be out of options if they lost this time. The French government, on the other hand, may have wanted to hold the vote before the pro-independence forces gained momentum to ensure that New Caledonia would remain part of France.

 

Macron welcomed the vote result and emphasized his intention to work to improve New Caledonia’s position amid mounting tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.

 

French troops are stationed in New Caledonia and make it a base for their activities in the region. In September this year, a joint exercise between Japan and France was held in waters around New Caledonia, during which a Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer made a port call. It is certain that New Caledonia’s strategic significance has been growing.

 

In 2019, the Pacific island nations of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with China, at China’s urging. China has been increasing its presence in the region through economic assistance and infrastructure development such as ports and harbors.

 

New Caledonia is a global producer of nickel, which is used in batteries for electric vehicles and other purposes.

 

Caution is needed against a situation in which China incites the independence movement behind the scenes to acquire natural resources and reduce French influence.

 

From now on, the French government intends to promote discussions with New Caledonian authorities about economic policies and tax systems aimed at redressing economic disparities. As long as the independence movement smolders, there is room for China to take advantage of the situation. Healing divisions among residents is a top priority.

 

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 16, 2021.

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