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Journal Article Review of Maclellan, N. (2021) Stable, Democratic and Western: China and French Colonialism in the Pacific

Roxane de Waegh and Lucas Watt

Maclellan’s (2021) chapter, Stable Democratic and Western: China and French Colonialism in the Pacific, is part of Smith & Wesley-Smith (2021) edited book The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands. The edited book as a whole brings together a collection of scholars who analyze China’s growing involvement in the Pacific. The edited book is a welcome addition as it approaches the topic in a measured way that contrasts to prior literature that is often hyperbolic and hysterical about Chinese influence. Maclellan’s (2021) chapter is particularly refined in the sense that it analyses Chinese interest in the region in a context of the continued French colonial legacy in the Pacific. This colonial legacy invariably affects how Chinese interest and ambition in the region is pursued in the region. It also affects how Chinese interest is responded to by France, other western states, and Pacific states. Overall, Maclellan (2021) paints a obstructionist and self-interested Francophone picture which Chinese and Pacific Island non-state actors frustratingly navigate to progress local interests. It puts the notion of a “stable, democratic and western” Pacific into a more critical perspective.

In this review, Roxane de Waegh continues to locate French and broader western interest in the remaining Francophone colonial states in the Pacific. She argues that France is adamantly protecting its geopolitical interests in the Pacific by retaining and securitizing these Pacific Island colonial states. They are not the development partners to these Pacific states that they claim to be. Lucas Watt then explores how non-state entrepreneurial actors are emerging as key players in securing foreign capital for these beholden Pacific states. As colonial states, French Polynesia and New Caledonia are unable to leverage increased political competition in the region to obtain foreign state capital to the same extent as other Pacific nations have in the New Pacific Diplomacy. The emergence of non-state entrepreneurial actors to obtain foreign capital for Pacific nations in a changing regional political order may be considered a New Commercial Pacific Diplomacy.

Development Partners or Geopolitical Allies? – Roxane de Waegh

In the 21st century, France still enjoys the controlling role of a colonial power figure in the Pacific Islands. The three non-self-governing territories of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna – as well as the uninhabited Clipperton Island – all remain under the control of the old western ally. However – as with Australia and the independent island states – the financial support that France contributes as the administrating power (amounting to nearly 2.5 billion per annum) does not guaranteed that France remains their primary partner for trade (Maclellan, 2021).

Since 2000, there has been a twelvefold increase in the value of Chinese exports to the region. Over the same period, imports from Australia have remained stagnant, with their value in 2017 lower than in 2004 (Dornan and Muller, 2018). This pattern can also be seen with New Caledonia and French Polynesia. In 2018, China was the number one export destination for New Caledonia with 31.7 per cent of trade – mostly due to nickel ore exports – followed by Korea (15.5 per cent) and Japan (15 per cent). The interest of Chinese companies continues to grow in the South Pacific region, and French Polynesian entrepreneurs of Chinese heritage are looking to China to expand their existing operations in agriculture, fisheries, and tourism (Maclellan, 2021).

In response to China’s increasing interest, the Western allies are reinforcing their security engagement with Pacific Island nations in an attempt to contain the growing Chinese influence (Maclellan, 2021). Australia, New Zealand and the US – also known as ANZUS – are now seeking to mobilise strategic partners like France in the Pacific Islands region. Australian politicians, media and think tanks welcome any signs that allies like France and the United Kingdom will play a greater role in the Pacific Islands, presenting these partners as ‘stable, democratic and Western’ (Maclellan, 2012; 2020), meanwhile presenting China as an example of debt-trap diplomacy. Australia media has also reported that China’s commercial investments may lead to greater Chinese strategic influence, even suggesting that their interest in developing an aquaculture facility may open the way for a Chinese military facility in French Polynesia (Maclellan, 2021).

The Western allies’ response to China’s growing influence in the South Pacific is the epiphany of hypocrisy and uncovers their own hidden agendas. While the Australians are accusing China of mischievously opening an aquaculture plant in French Polynesia for the sole purpose of gaining strategic military access, they are also purchasing 80 US billion dollars’ worth of submarine technology from the French (Maclellan, 2021). The two countries, France and Australia, have also recently signed a new Mutual Logistics Support Agreement in 2018 to allow French and Australians naval and air units to use each other’s ports, fuel and logistics in the Pacific (Maclellan, 2021). The objective of these strategic partnerships between France, Australia and even India (who are also buying arms from the French) is to contain China’s growth – but it is also being used to justify French colonialism in the Pacific Islands (Vandendyck, 2018).  More importantly, the competition between the Allies and China comes without analysis, or any concern, of the implication for local populations, especially those seeking political independence from colonial rule (Maclellan, 2021).  

While the allies are focused on state centered security threats, and China is focused on economic growth and a greater presence in the global trade market, the Pacific Island governments are concerned with issues through the prism of human security, encompassing the oceans, climate change and the management of marine resources (Maclellan, 2021). In 2018, the leaders from the Pacific Islands (PIF) met in Nauru to issue the Boe Declaration, which reaffirms that ‘climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement’ (PIF Secretariat, 2018). However, key development partners do not prioritise funding on climate change and human security, focusing instead on more traditional threats such as geopolitical tensions and the potential of warfare. These mismatches in priorities, interests, and perspectives are brilliantly summarised in an interview with French Polynesian President, Edouard Fritch, at the 2018 Pacific Island Forum:

…there is certainly the problem of global warming, but there are other problems that are just as important: the security of populations, maritime security, national security for each country and also regional security. Today, Pacific countries want more security and so are looking to all their partners, whether it’s China or the United States.’’

This perspective of China as a development partner equivalent to the US clashes with the dominant ANZUS narrative of China as a regional security threat (Maclellan, 2021). Tahitian desires to increase engagement with China are in tension with Western policies of strategic denial, as France and its Anglophone partners seek to halt supposed Chinese ‘dept-trap diplomacy’ or the potential deployment of Beijing’s military assets (Connolly 2016; Maclellan, 2018). Yet more importantly, this quote reveals how the needs and desires of Pacific Island nations are not being considered or even acknowledged. Throughout Maclellan’s (2021) article, the Pacific Island nations were a mere backdrop to a broader geopolitical discussion between global economic powers. These so called ‘development partners’ do not have the interests of the Pacific Islands’ nations in their strategies – and they may not even be aware of what the recipients’ needs are. The Chinese are interested in increasing their role and influence within the global trade market, and the French still believe that the costs of maintain a colonial empire are ones that must be borne, with a report from the French Senate noting:

‘’ The exercise of our sovereignty over these vast stretches and the international competition we face are certainly a difficult cost to bear in this period of crisis. But this is an investment for the future, an historic opportunity for growth and expansion. France, with its overseas territories on the front rank, must seize this opportunity and bet on the blue economy (Senate 2014:13)’’

The only positive outcome from this fierce competition between Western colonial powers and China is that it provides a sliver of honesty and truth for the Pacific Island nations. Development partners are guided by the pursuit of power and control over Pasifika’s resources – whether those resources are fisheries, tourism, or the untapped potential of deep sea bed mining and other opportunities within the hidden blue economy. Yet trade relations are rapidly shifting from Europe to Asia, carrying with them the sought-after power and control that the outdated Western allies still desperately crave. In this refreshing article, Maclellan (2021) finally exposes the development partners for who they are and what they sincerely stand for. It is time to let go of this naïve belief that development partners are incentivised by a benevolent calling to serve the needs of marginalised communities – in the Pacific or anywhere else in the world.

The New Commercial Pacific Diplomacy – Lucas Watt

Maclellan’s (2021) chapter, along with many other chapters in this Smith & Wesley-Smith (2021) edited book The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands, significantly adds to the New Pacific Diplomacy literature. Fry and Tarte (2016), who first coined the term the New Pacific Diplomacy, argued that Pacific states have been able to leverage an increasing number of state actors who have interests in the region to arrive at more favorable aid deals and political agreements that aligned with Pacific goals. With the increased interest of China, Japan, Indonesia, among others, in the region, Pacific states have been able to rely less on the unequal paternalistic type relationships that colonial powers once held, even after the independence movement in the Pacific. Typically, aid from the old colonial powers, which includes Australia and New Zealand, has been directed towards “capacity building” and “nation building” in order to create political stability in the region. With the entrance of other state actors into the region, with less avert political goals and more explicit economic goals, Pacific states have been more able to access capital for a wider array of development projects.

France is in the relatively unique position of continuing to hold its Pacific territories (The USA also continues to hold a collection of Micronesian states). This continued colonial occupation imposes restrictions on the ability of New Caledonia and French Polynesia to participate in and benefit from this New Pacific Diplomacy. With their allegiances to their colonial state, they are less able to play states off one another in the political realm. Yet, it may be possible for these beholden Pacific states to participate in the New Pacific Diplomacy in other inventive ways. Maclellan’s (2021) chapter indirectly demonstrates how non-state actors are involved in leveraging the changing political order in the region that may be of benefit to beholden Pacific states. Entrepreneurial figures in particular have played an increasing role in leveraging political change in the region in securing capital for economically derived developmental projects. This is particularly exemplified by Wang Chen, CEO of Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods.

It is at times difficult to separate the Chinese state from its overseas enterprises as the Chinese Communist party almost always have a majority share in these enterprises. Chinese company, Tianrui Group, which owns the subsidiary, Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods, seems to be one of those rare exceptions where they are listed as a non-state-owned enterprise by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. This is significant as it places the Tianrui Group and its subsidiary Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods as independent from the Chinese state. That is at least my interpretation of their ownership from publicly available information, although it is also worth mentioning that there does seem to be some involvement by the Chinese Development Bank in the investments of Tahiti Nui Ocean Food specifically (Maclellan, 2021, pg 216). Regardless of the precise ownership status of Tianrui Group and Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods, many Chinese enterprises with Chinese state ownership are only loosely co-ordinated by the state. These Chinese enterprises broadly retain their operating autonomy (Hameiri, 2015) . In this sense I am considering Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods led by its CEO Wang Chen, seen in the above banner image, as a “non-state actor”, with these notable points addressed.  

Wang Chen of Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods has led the initiative to build an aquaculture farm on Hao atoll in French Polynesia. Hao Atoll holds a French aircraft runway from which nuclear testing was once initiated from. The presence of this aircraft runway makes Hao Atoll alluring infrastructurally for the aquaculture initiative. Tahiti Nui Ocean Group promoted that it would invest US$1.5 Billion in the island enterprise and its infrastructure, as well as provide 10,000 jobs to locals. Both these investment and employment figures have been significant reduced since, yet the project is still proceeding (Maclellan, 2021, pg 213-218).

New Pacific Diplomacy
The Airstrip on Hao Atoll (Image Credit: Sydney Morning Herald)

Maclellan (2021) explains in his chapter how Wang Chen has capitalized on the French desire to encourage investment on Hao Atoll as it would allow France to distance itself from its tainted nuclear legacy. It also provides an alternative revenue stream for French Polynesia after France has been winding down its military presence (and corresponding investment) in the area. This benefits France as it will potentially get them “off the hook” from providing revenue assistance to French Polynesia to compensate for a decline in investment in French Polynesia. While France desires to have a project like this develop, there would have been some considerable greasing of the wheels by Wang Chen and Tahiti Nui Ocean Foods to get France to approve it considering the fears of undue “Chinese influence” in the region. These fears are largely unfounded however they play a role in the security policy of France and its western allies in the Pacific.

The French government is not the only entity that benefits from this aquaculture initiative. It equally capitalizes on the French Polynesian government’s desire to obtain revenue generating capital for the long-term economic sustainability of their typically colonial dependent state. The French Polynesian government actively pursued Wang Chen to invest in the Hao Atoll aquaculture initiative, even granting him the honorific title Commandeur dans l’orde de Tahiti nui (Maclellan, 2021, pg 216). While the French and French Polynesian government seem to have mutual benefit here to attract investment in Hao Atoll, the aggressive and strategic pursuit of Wang Chen and Tahiti Nui Ocean Group by the French Polynesian government, purposefully demonstrates to the French government that they have the capability to attract foreign capital and assistance. This interest is one that France must either allow or match as their colonial state if the pretext of being their colonial administrator continues to make sense.

This is an interesting case study as it shows how the leveraging of the changing political order in the Pacific is not restricted to formal state politics. For Pacific states who are still beholden to their colonial powers, it is these non-state entrepreneurial actors that provide the key to participating in the New Pacific Diplomacy. It is a New Commercial Pacific Diplomacy that outsources the leveraging of the changing political order and priorities to entrepreneurial non-state actors. They can find the gaps in which investment projects are feasible and acceptable within the changing political order. State entities, particularly beholden Pacific states, can encourage the involvement of these actors as they fulfill a political role that they simply are unable to do. These non-state entrepreneurial actors help beholden Pacific states apply pressure to their colonial administrating states to continue providing assistance to their peoples, or at least challenges them to loosen their reign.

There are of course significant concerns to consider when putting entrepreneurial non-state actors in this powerful position. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that they will leverage their position to the detriment, not benefit, of beholden Pacific states. At the least this is a complex example that I will keep track of, among others, to understand the role of entrepreneurial non state actors in the New Commercial Pacific Diplomacy.

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223

References

Connolly, P. 2016. Engaging China’s New Foreign Policy in the South Pacific. Australian Journal of International Affairs 70:5:484–505. doi.org/10.1080/ 10357718.2016.1194805.

Dornan, M. and S. Muller 2018. The China Shift in Pacific Trade. Devpolicy Blog, 15 November.

Fry, G., & Tarte, S. (2016). The New Pacific diplomacy. ANU Press.

Hameiri, S. (2015). China’s ‘charm offensive’in the Pacific and Australia’s regional order. The Pacific Review, 28(5), 631-654.

Maclellan, N. 2012. Partenariat Stratégique Renforcé entre la France et l’Australie. Tahiti-Pacifique Magazine 254 (August).

Maclellan, N. 2018d. France and the Blue Pacific. Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies September 5(3):426–41. doi.org/10.1002/app5.228.

Maclellan, N. (2021). Stable, Democratic and Western: China and French Colonialism in the Pacific. THE CHINA ALTERNATIVE, 197.

PIF (Pacific Islands Forum) Secretariat 2018. Boe Declaration. Attachment to Final Communiqué. Forty-Ninth Pacific Islands Forum. Boe, Nauru, 5 September. Vandendyck, B. 2018. Le Développement de l’Influence Chinoise dans le Pacifique Océanien. Revue Juridique, Politique et Économique de la NouvelleCalédonie 2018/1(31):199–209

Smith, G. and Wesley-Smith, T. (2021). The China Alternative. ANU Press: Canberra.

Authors

  • I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

  • My name is Roxane de Waegh and I am a PhD student at the Faculty of Culture and Society at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. I am originally from Belgium, but grew up a bit all over the world, including Congo, Senegal, Singapore, Chile, Argentina, Japan, USA, and Canada. The ocean, the concept of remoteness, and the complexity of connectivity have always fascinated me. After working as a marine biologist for nearly 6 years with various environmental NGOs in remote coastal communities, including Myanmar, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, I have come back to the academic world, hoping to deepen my understanding of the intrinsic paradoxical nature of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) in marginalised coastal communities.

2 Comments

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