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Both sides wish to strengthen sometimes rocky relationship

NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, Jan. 27, 2010) - Once turbulent relations between New Caledonia and Australia have "matured" over the pat few years, a Nouméa-posted diplomat said on Monday.

Speaking on the occasion of Australia Day while hosting a cocktail party at her official residence in New Caledonia’s capital Nouméa, Australia’s Acting Consul General Tamara Somers said the current relationship between the French Pacific territory and Australia is mainly characterized by "a strong will from both sides to deepen those relations and to strengthen cooperation projects."

"We now think this relationship has reached a form of maturity that now allow to reflect on difficult, but also on the best times … We now have a relation of trust," she told daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes.

The Australian diplomat also reinforced a consistent message voiced by Canberra over the past five years: that "Australia very much appreciates the part played by France in New Caledonia" as well as the autonomy process currently underway under the Nouméa Accord, which since May 1998 sets out a roadmap of gradually increased autonomy and a possible referendum on self-determination between 2014 and 2018.

The Nouméa Accord, meanwhile, also implements a gradual transfer of executive powers from metropolitan France to local authorities.

The pact, inked by both pro-independence and pro-France leaders, as well as by the French government, is also signaling the notion of power-sharing and "collegiality" in government as a rule and a better integration of New Caledonia in its regional environment, namely the South Pacific region.

Over the past five years, New Caledonia, like French Polynesia, another French Pacific dependency with large autonomy powers, has been granted the new "associate member" status within the Pacific Islands Forum.

"We do wish a stronger implication of New Caledonia in the Pacific region… Obviously, Australia wants a stable and prosperous New Caledonia and that’s precisely why we appreciate France’s role," she said.

Somers also pointed out that this year marks the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of Australia’s relations with New Caledonia.

This was in 1940, when New Caledonia finally decided to join the "Free France" movement launched from London by General Charles de Gaulle, while French mainland was partly occupied by Nazi Germany.

Australia, a then staunch ally of Britain’s Churchill, was also regarded, in the Pacific, as a key component of the war against Germany and it was feared at the time that New Caledonia would fall on the side of the pro-German, Vichy-based French government headed by Marshall Philippe Pétain.

High-level delegation to visit Australia from 9 to 11 March

This year, also, a high-level delegation from New Caledonia has been invited by foreign minister Stephen Smith to visit Australia from 9 to 11 March.

The delegation will include the French High Commissioner in New Caledonia, the President of New Caledonia’s local government, Philippe Gomès, the President of the Congress (-the territorial parliament) Pierre Frogier and the Presidents of New Caledonia’s three provinces (North, South and Loyalty Islands).

"(Mr Smith) wishes to stimulate New Caledonia’s involvement in the region. He thinks it’s important to welcome a high level delegation from New Caledonia to give more substance to our relationship," the Australian diplomat said, adding the delegation was likely to meet Australian Prime minister Kevin Rudd, who also currently holds the Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum.

An important item likely on the agenda of those talks was bilateral trade.

Australia, for a number of years, has expressed strong interest in more involvement of its companies into the booming nickel mining industry and has also sent several clear signals asking for more liberation and less protectionism on the part of New Caledonia for Australian goods to be exported there.

The current yearly volume (2008) of Australian exports to New Caledonia is estimated at some 350 million Australian dollars.

Another major component of the Australia-New Caledonia relationship was defence, through regular exercises and mutual operations in the neighbouring Pacific islands, especially in terms of natural disaster relief.

In July 2009, the latest version of a Defence Cooperation agreement between Australia and France came into force "in keeping with the Australian Government’s wish to deepen and broaden its close and productive ties with France," the Australian Government’s Department of Defence said in a release at the time.

The new pact will "will enhance bilateral defense engagement by facilitating cooperation in a range of mutually agreed fields including, the conduct of military exchanges, exercises and training, defense materiel, logistics support and capability planning, activities to enhance and broaden the interaction of our respective military cultures, science and technology and the exchange of space-based information, including military geospatial information," the Australian Department said, adding that "Australia and France have an active defense relationship."

"In Afghanistan, Australia works alongside a French Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team in Oruzgan Province. Australia and France actively contribute to maritime surveillance, humanitarian disaster relief assistance, and support to regional defense and police forces in the Pacific and Southern Oceans. Australia and France also share concerns over global threats to security and both contribute to international security efforts," the release went on.

In September 2008, as part of an official visit to Australia and talks with then Australian Defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon, French Defence minister Hervé Morin announced France was to grant logistic support to Australian naval forces through what is to become its main defense base in the Pacific: New Caledonia.

"We are very keen to do all we can to promote peace, stability and prosperity amongst our near neighbors and this agreement gives us additional flexibility and a better capacity to deal with any contingencies that might arise in that part of the region," Fitzgibbon said.

The closer links now materialize through a reciprocal agreement allowing soldiers from Australia to benefit from "logistic support" in New Caledonia, which has been designated as France’s new military "regional pole" for the whole of the Pacific Ocean.

"Australia has a longstanding Defence relationship with France and … (we) discussed … progress of negotiations on a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA). The MLSA will facilitate enhanced cooperation in the provision of logistic support to each other regionally and globally, in situations such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the South Pacific," Fitzgibbon said in a statement after his meeting with Morin.

The French Defence minister also hailed the good relationship between Paris and Canberra, on several fronts including engagement in Afghanistan, but also in combined efforts for a more secure Pacific region.

Morin said French military cooperation with Australia was "extremely important."

France, Australia and New Zealand, since the early 1990s, are signatories to a so-called "FRANZ" pact which was originally designed to pool and coordinate resources in situations such as relief to populations hit by natural disaster in neighboring Pacific island countries.

Over the past few years, however, it was also envisaged to extend the "FRANZ" alliance to a coordinated effort to better monitor the South Pacific Ocean, especially in the face of growing unreported and illegal fishing activities.

"Our relations with Australia and New Zealand are very positive … We are aware of the fact that the Australians and the New Zealanders want to develop relations with the French army, under the framework of NATO when it comes to forces in Afghanistan, but also in the (Pacific) region.

France, Australia and New Zealand, but also armies and defense forces from the Southwest Pacific region (Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Tonga) have in recent years taken part in joint exercises with, typically, a real-life scenario combining natural disasters and civil and political unrest affecting a fictitious island country.

One of such exercises, codenamed "Southern Cross," takes places in New Caledonia every second year.

Strengthen French-Australian defence links via New Caledonia

Building on an increasing number of joint exercises in the past ten years, Paris and Canberra now want to further strengthen their defence links, for the sake of regional stability in the Pacific region, where France has three dependencies (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna).

Some of the focuses in French-Australian growing defence links are perceived to be a form of response to 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 the Pacific Ocean, and in terms of interaction with regional forces, New Caledonia (where about 1,700 defence personnel are currently based) is now perceived to be France’s focal point, in the heart of Melanesia (a sub-region dubbed by Australia the "Melanesian arc of instability").

"What we are doing in New Caledonia and in the Pacific, we’re doing everywhere else where we have military establishments. We have decided to create what we call ‘defense bases’. In essence, they are support facilities that rely on shared, inter-army resources. So instead of having support facilities for each army, we are now going to share all this so we can gain in effectiveness and save on the operating costs, which is now absolutely necessary for equipment and modernizing our forces," Morin explained during his visit in the Pacific region.

"So New Caledonia is going to become our Pacific Defence base, a regional focal point. It will concentrate most of our resources, including those deployed if assistance is required in French Polynesia, in case of natural disaster, in case of need. There will still be forces in French Polynesia, but much less, we will only retain aerial capacity and others to protect the Exclusive Economic Zone there. But most of the resources, including support and command, will be based in New Caledonia," he said.

The White Paper recommended across the board cuts to the tune of some 50,000 men in the French army.

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

Those reforms are scheduled to be gradually implemented from 2011 onwards and New Caledonia was chosen also because it was the closest French Pacific territory to Australia.

The French White Paper on defense, with regards to the armed forces in the Pacific region, describes New Caledonia as the new "entry point," with most of the staff and equipment based there.

Under the review, New Caledonia is poised to undergo a fifteen percent cut within its current staff, about three hundred personnel, by 2011.

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