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Why the South Pacific rumblings in New Caledonia? China

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By John J. Metzler, May 29, 2024

New Caledonia, a remote French overseas territory in the South Pacific, is not often in the news. It’s even less common when you see the truly unexpected cast of characters placing this small island group into an unwanted limelight.

The trigger for the recent troubles was a ruling in Paris allowing for voting rights for the island’s non-indigenous population, thus indirectly diluting the power the local Kanak people. Rioting, widespread looting in Noumea the capital quickly spread as would sadly be expected, and before long France sent Gendarmes and troops from Europe to quell the troubles. Seven people, including two police officers, were killed during the disturbances leading to the French declaring a State of Emergency.

Situated between Australia and the Fiji Islands, New Caledonia’s population of 272,000 is roughly divided between an indigenous Kanak majority of 41 percent and French/European minority of 24 percent among other mixed groups. Many French have fully assimilated locally. The population is overwhelmingly Christian.

Back in 1998 after an earlier time of tensions, the French government agreed to the Noumea Accords allowing for three referendums on whether the territory wished to gain independence from France. Over this past decade all three votes were held, rejecting a break with France; The island wished to retain its political and cultural ties with Paris. Yet, despite being a highly subsidized territory of France, an increasingly radicalized pro-independence movement has flared again.

Into the fray flew French President Emmanuel Macron on the Presidential Airbus, trying to use his artful logic and persuasion to sort things out. Macron condemned the “absolutely unprecedented insurrection movement” that has shaken New Caledonia since mid-May.

The French in the meantime have accused the Azeris of fomenting mischief in the South Pacific. Gérald Darmanin, the Overseas France Minister, charged that Azerbaijan bore some responsibility for the unrest in New Caledonia, “It’s not a fantasy, it’s a reality.”

Indeed, among the flags and banners of pro-independence protesters quite improbably were the flags of Azerbaijan, the authoritarian oil rich Muslim republic on the Caspian Sea bordering Iran.

The French Interior Ministry suspected this obviously had nothing to do with religion, but much to do with Azerbaijan’s long running political feud with France over strong support by Paris of Armenia, Azerbaijan’s Arch enemy. Only last September the Azeris’ captured a large swath of disputed territory from Armenia displacing large numbers of ethnic Armenians.

But this is a half a world away from the South Pacific.

At this point you are thinking but what is the “real reason” for the troubles?

Indeed, natural resources, in this case nickel. New Caledonia remains the world’s third largest producer of nickel, a key element in the production of clean energy applications and especially batteries for Electric cars.

Who is the world’s largest electric car producer? And who profits by cornering the nickel mining market?


Mining remains an important part of the New Caledonia economy accounting for 90 percent of exports. Beyond its use in stainless steel production nickel, according to Resources Canada, has seen the evolving utilization of the commodity in the production of lithium-ion batteries for electric/ hybrid vehicles, which accounted for 15% of total nickel end use globally in 2022.

But now the seemingly overlooked resource has focused Macron who wants to place France in a strong position for mandated EU Green energy initiatives, especially electric vehicles. In a sense France is focused on turning this vital resource into a driver of EV battery production.

While Indonesia holds large deposits of nickel as does Russia and Canada, New Caledonia enters the relatively small cache of nickel producers. The price per ton of the metal stands at $20,000. The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2030 a group formed by Indonesia, the Philippines and New Caledonia could account for 75% of international mining production.

Already 40 percent of New Caledonia’s nickel exports go to China.

Last year President Macron warned, those indigenous separatists who favored an independent New Caledonia which would benefit from closer ties with China, “If independence means choosing tomorrow to have a Chinese (naval) base here or to be dependent on other fleets, good luck! That’s not called independence.”

Not surprisingly both Beijing and Moscow have carefully cultivated ties with the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, the primary pro-independence movement.

China is playing its cards carefully. While New Caledonia’s mining sector has faced its own production problems it holds sizable untapped reserves; Beijing looks to corner natural resources globally.

Will this be Beijing’s Bali Hai moment in the South Pacific?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]
ncaledonia by is licensed under Internet

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