A significant diplomatic effort aimed at countering Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region is currently in progress, and it is evident from the simultaneous visits of Western leaders to the once-neglected islands in the area.
This week, some of the notable figures island-hopping are French President Emmanuel Macron and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Additionally, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Papua New Guinea, while Britain’s Armed Forces Minister James Heappey made a stop in Fiji.
Among the Western guests, President Macron is attracting the most attention. During his visit to the nickel-rich French overseas territory of New Caledonia, he issued a warning about the possibility of “Chinese naval bases tomorrow” if the strategically located archipelago were to gain independence.
Macron stated on Wednesday in Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, that if choosing independence led to establishing a Chinese military base or becoming reliant on another foreign naval fleet, it would not truly be independence at all.
France maintains naval bases in New Caledonia, which has a complex history, being declared a French convict colony by Napoleon III in 1853. Although the first two independence votes in 2018 and 2020 favored French rule, there have been increasing pro-independence votes over time, particularly among the Kanak population.
During his visit to Vanuatu, Macron also cautioned against “new imperialism,” showcasing his efforts to preserve the vestiges of France’s colonial empire while recognizing the need to address concerns about potential expansionism.
Until its independence in 1980, Vanuatu was under the joint rule of Britain and France. With his visit, Macron achieved the distinction of being the first sitting French president to visit an independent Pacific country.
During his visit to Port Vila, Macron expressed concerns about the emergence of new imperialism in the Indo-Pacific, especially in Oceania. He pointed out that this power dynamics poses a threat to the sovereignty of several states, particularly the smallest and most vulnerable ones.
While not explicitly mentioned, China maintains significant engagement with the region. According to a report from the Lowy Institute, a think tank based in Sydney, Beijing’s development financing in the area reached its highest point in 2016. Despite this, China continues to be a major provider of infrastructure loans to Pacific island nations.
Vanuatu, for example, obtained new loans from China between 2017 and 2021. Additionally, it was reported by Reuters that China’s Export-Import Bank holds the position of being the largest creditor to Vanuatu.
During his visit to Port Vila, Macron presented France’s Indo-Pacific strategy as a means to safeguard the independence and sovereignty of all willing regional states through partnerships.
France revamped its Indo-Pacific strategy last year in an effort to reassert its presence in the region after Australia chose to join the Aukus alliance, opting for British and American nuclear-powered submarines, resulting in the cancellation of a French submarine contract.
Macron’s trip to Vanuatu coincided with Austin’s visit to Papua New Guinea, which is the French leader’s next destination. Austin, the first US Secretary of Defense to visit the island nation with a population of 10 million, announced the deployment of a coastguard cutter to Papua New Guinea. However, he clarified that the United States had no intention of establishing a permanent military base there.
Papua New Guinea, a significant battleground during World War II, has become a focal point of geopolitical competition between China and the United States.
While Austin was busy strengthening defense connections with Papua New Guinea, Blinken, the leading US diplomat, acknowledged the potential expansion of Aukus during a joint press conference with New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta in Wellington. When questioned about New Zealand’s potential involvement in the alliance, Blinken emphasized that the option for New Zealand and other partners to participate remains open based on their own judgment.
These remarks were made shortly after Blinken’s visit to Tonga, where he cautioned South Pacific islands about China’s “predatory” conduct. He expressed concern over China’s problematic actions, including engaging in economic activities and investments that can undermine good governance and encourage corruption as its involvement in the region increases.
Next, Blinken will head to Australia, where he and Austin will have meetings with Penny Wong, the Australian foreign affairs minister, and Richard Marles, its defense minister, scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
This gathering comes after Heappey’s recent trip to Fiji, where he visited the Fiji Naval Base and discussed Britain’s role in Pacific security. Local media reported that Britain confirmed increased cooperation with the Fijian military, including the deployment of more British warships to the Pacific island.
While other leaders focused on engagements within the Pacific, Macron is extending his outreach to the Indian Ocean. Breaking new ground for a sitting French president, he will travel to Sri Lanka, strategically positioned at the crossroads of Indian Ocean trade, on Friday to hold talks with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Ranil Wickremesinghe.