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Regional security on agenda

By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, Sept. 12, 2008) - French defence minister Hervé Morin is scheduled to travel to Australia next week, as part of a an official Pacific trip that will also include the French territory of New Caledonia.

During a planned two-day visit (September 16-17), Morin is expected to hold bilateral talks with Australian Prime minister Kevin Rudd, his minister for foreign affairs Stephen Smith and his direct Australian counterpart, Defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon, the French Embassy in Canberra said on Thursday in a release.

Likely items on the bilateral French-Australian agenda would be regional security in the Pacific region, where French and Australian forces (as well as New Zealand and several Pacific Island States) armies have engaged, for the past ten years, in regular exercises.

Some of the focuses of such regular contacts are perceived to be the need for regional forces to work on their "inter-operability", in such diverse situations as disaster relief for Pacific Islands or the evacuation of foreign nationals in a regional state, should the need arise.

In such fields, France, Australia and New Zealand have signed in the early 1990s a so-called "FRANZ" pact.

For the past two years, they have also mooted the possibility to extend such provisions to a reinforced Pacific Ocean maritime surveillance, mainly to better combat illegal and unreported fishing activities.

In the Pacific Ocean, and in terms of interaction with regional forces, New Caledonia (where about 1,700 defence personnel are currently based) is perceived to be France's focal point, in the heart of Melanesia (a sub-region dubbed by Australia the "Melanesian arc of instability").

On the global front, French and Australian troops are also engaged in Afghanistan, where 10 French soldiers were killed on August 18 as a result of an ambush by Talibans.

During his visit in New Caledonia immediately before his Australian official visit (September 14-16), Morin is also expected to pay homage to Corporal Melam Baouma, a local soldier who enrolled in the French army and was part of the ten French army staff killed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO forces.

In New Caledonia, Morin is scheduled to meet a wide range of local stakeholders, including local head of the French Armed forces in New Caledonia (FANC), two-star General Martial de Braquilanges and his men.

The French defence minister is also expected to spend time to meet political and business leaders, but will also explain the implications of the recently-announced reform programme for the French Army, which was released last month in the form of a White Paper.

The paper recommended cuts to the tune of some 50,000 men in the French army overall.

But New Caledonia does not seem to be affected by the cuts, since it is now considered by Paris, in its new defence system, as the regional platform for the French army in the Pacific Ocean.

Morin is also planning to visit the construction site of at least one of the three world-class nickel mining projects in the French Pacific territory, the site of what is to become the key economic pole of New Caledonia's Northern Province, in Koniambo.

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