French President Emmanuel Macron warned against “new imperialism” in the Pacific during a landmark visit to the region, denouncing predatory behaviour by big powers in a region where China is extending trade and security ties.
France, which has island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific including French Polynesia, has boosted defence ties with India and other countries in the region as part of a move to counter Chinese influence.
In a speech in Vanuatu, Macron, the first French president to have set foot on the Pacific islands nation since war leader Charles de Gaulle, said France would work “shoulder to shoulder” with states in the region to preserve their independence.
“There is in the Indo-Pacific, especially in Oceania, new imperialism appearing and a power logic which is threatening the sovereignty of many states, the smallest and often the most fragile ones,” Macron said, without naming any country.
“The modern world is shaking up the Indo-Pacific’s sovereignty and independence. First, because of the predation of big powers. Foreign ships fish illegally here. In the region, many loans with Leonine conditions strangle up development.”
Pacific Islands nations are being courted by China, a major infrastructure lender which struck a security pact with Solomon Islands last year, and the United States, which is re-opening embassies closed since the Cold War.
Macron Follows Austin
China has been a major infrastructure lender to Pacific Islands nations including Vanuatu over the past decade. Vanuatu’s largest creditor is China’s EXIM bank, accounting for a third of debt, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Washington has stepped up U.S. Coast Guard patrols and surveillance for illegal fishing in the Pacific islands, after concern at China’s naval ambitions.
After Vanuatu, Macron is due to arrive in Papua New Guinea on Thursday evening, hot on the heels of U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who was there on Thursday.
In May, the U.S. and Papua New Guinea (PNG) signed a defence agreement that sets a framework for Washington to refurbish PNG ports and airports for military and civilian use.
The United States and its allies are seeking to deter Pacific Islands nations from establishing security ties with China, a rising concern amid tension over Taiwan.
Macron’s advisers say France can be an “alternative” and help island nations diversify their partnerships without becoming too reliant on one single country.