According to an article by Journalist Phong Cao Pham on the BBC, the recent referendum in New Caledonia with 96.28% voting to stay with France could be considered a temporary defeat for China.
According to Phong, last Sunday’s referendum is not just this country’s internal affair of whether to leave France and be independent or not. Instead, the Chinese element has emerged as the subject of fierce debate among two sides—those who want to stay with France and the pro-independence faction.
According to French media, China has been carrying out diplomatic and economic activities to draw this strategically located island into its sphere of influence, but so far only failed.
It is the third time New Caledonia, a group of French archipelagoes since 1853, has held consultations with its people on whether to leave or stay with France.
Phong said three consecutive referendums, not far apart, the first in November 2018, the second in October 2020, and the third time just last Sunday, Dec. 12, have raised the question of why there is such a fierce race.
Phong asked, why are the voices of the people from the last two independent votes not respected, and they must hold the third referendum now? The goal is to have this “yes” vote at all costs, at least in the eyes of China?
In military terms, since World War II, New Caledonia has become an essential rear base for the U.S. in the war against the Japanese navy. The U.S. fleet, including the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, is stationed here. It joined the so-called “Battle of the Coral Sea”—and defeated the Japanese fascist navy that wanted to reach Australia and the South Pacific Ocean.
According to Phong, the U.S. invests in infrastructure, modernizes roads and bridges, expands runways of old airports, builds new airports including La Tontouta, Magenta Airport, and more. American lifestyle and culture have spread far and wide in New Caledonia. Even after the war, the community petitioned Washington to make New Caledonia the 51st state.
But France deftly prevented this and kept New Caledonia within the French union.
However, Phong said that today, the French-speaking territory, consisting of a small group of islands, faces very new problems.
China wants precious minerals and a strong geopolitical stance in the region
Today, the archipelago, which was thought to have separated from mainland Australia about 66 million years ago, has nickel that makes up a quarter of the world’s reserves. Nickel is an indispensable material in crucial industries, such as green energy conversion, which requires nickel to produce electric batteries.
Phong said that France has defended this overseas territory from the scrutiny of Japan in the early 20th century, from the U.S. after World War II, and then from Australia and New Zealand. And now, they face China, the next great power that wants to step in, BBC reported.
Zack Cooper, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, said in French newspaper La Croix that over the years, China “not only pays attention to countering U.S. influence in the marginal environment: Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, but also has reached out to the Pacific to counter Western influence.”
According to Phong, for the time being, China is temporarily defeated in the case of New Caledonia.
As early as the 2018 referendum, Paris knew that Beijing had a manipulative hand in New Caledonian politics.
French newspapers have published many articles about the referendum and China’s influence in overseas territories in the past week.
Phong said China ignites a fake wave of advocacy for ‘Independent New Caledonia’ by setting up fake accounts on social networks like Facebook, the old-time propaganda trick it uses all the time.
Philippe Gomès—former president of New Macedonia—told French news magazine l’OBS on Dec. 2 that in October 2017, Beijing sent a powerful Chinese delegation headed by Zhai Jun to the remote archipelago of New Caledonia in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Zhai Jun is China’s ambassador to Paris, a senior Communist Party official who once served as a vice foreign minister. He has the task “to radically change the perception of powerful officials on the island, regardless of their habits or tendencies, demanding independence or not. Under the influence of the diplomat, dozens of advisers are ready to explain in detail how cooperation with China will bring benefits to New Caledonia.”
According to Phong, the Chinese ambassador opens up a bright prospect of selflessly helping New Caledonia in all aspects, including fisheries and infrastructure. He also promised to help bring more Mainland tourists to this country island, boosting tourism.
The delegation also visited president Philippe Gomès because ten years ago, as a member of the “Parti loyaliste Calédonie” party, he advocated loyalty to France. Gomès later proposed opening a Chinese consulate in New Caledonia to develop tourism.
Now, at the prospect of New Caledonia becoming independent, Chinese officials no longer needed him and turned away 180 degrees. The second referendum was only 9,000 votes different, so no doubt, they thought it was easy to overturn the results.
According to Gomes, Ambassador Zhai Jun repeated time after time: “We want to help, help and only help you. We help with fisheries; we help improve roads, bridges; we help build infrastructure, help with fishing; we help develop tourism by sending Chinese passengers here on charter flights.”
On Dec. 11, the FranceTVInfo page asked if this third referendum was “China’s ambush?”
Phong said after Australia allied with Britain and the United States to form the AUKUS alliance, which angered Beijing, the role of islands in the Pacific Ocean near Australia became even more critical.
A potential independent New Caledonia, separated from France, would give China one more vote in the United Nations, push the French military out of the region, and devalue the alliances of Australia and the United States.
A definitive and clear answer
According to Phong, the results of New Caledonia’s third and final referendum vote on Dec. 12 have provided a transparent and unquestionable answer.
In the 2018 vote, the anti-separatist faction won 56.5%.
In the 2020 vote, voter participation was more extensive. And the anti-separatist figure was 53.26%.
However, this year, the anti-separatist support increased to a whopping 96.5% against Beijing’s will.
Phong said the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of cooperation with the international community to find out the origin of the virus, and China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea have “hit Beijing on the back.”
Additionally, countries across the Pacific region are also alarmed by Chinese fishing boats depleting the fish resources in the fishing grounds where they are not allowed to fish. They are also angry with the number of Chinese infrastructure projects where costs have skyrocketed, potentially creating debt traps for these countries.