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New Caledonia Unrest Is a Wake-up Call for US Strategists

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New Caledonia Unrest Is a Wake-up Call for US Strategists

The recent uprising in the French territory, once an essential bastion of U.S. power projection, holds deeper meaning for strategists.

New Caledonia Unrest Is a Wake-up Call for US Strategists
Credit: Depositphotos

The European Parliament elections illustrated that right-wing parties are gaining more traction voters on the other side of the Atlantic, a trend borne out by the first round of France’s snap election on Sunday. This trend could decisively impact the tragic war unfolding in Ukraine. However, the ebb and flow of European politics may also have reverberations in the Asia-Pacific, as well. 

French President Emanuel Macron was likely fatigued at the Normandy commemoration because he had just been on the other side of the planet in the South Pacific, attempting to put out the blazing fire in the French territory of New Caledonia.

It was only a few years ago, and with considerable fanfare, that Paris announced its own “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” This is part of a larger trend of NATO governments seeking a new role for the alliance in stabilizing volatile situations in East Asia. 

A new “incident” flared on June 11 when a Dutch frigate on its way to Japan encountered Chinese fighter jets operating in an “unsafe” manner. In response, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman remonstrated: “We strongly deplore the heinous nature of the Dutch side’s words and deeds…” Westerners may have long forgotten the Sino-Dutch War over Taiwan in the mid 17th century, but it seems likely Beijing has not. 

Of course, the Dutch were hardly the only Europeans to develop a taste for Asian finery and tea, along with expansive colonies among the “spice islands” during the volatile Age of Discovery when East and West came into regular contact. That dark colonial history occasionally flashes into view – even today. The French have not been pleased to see Russia’s new exertions across their former colonial domains in West Africa, and perhaps were smarting as well to see Russian President Vladimir Putin strutting around Hanoi on a state visit. Of course, Vietnam had been the jewel of France’s Pacific colonies until the tragedy that unfolded after World War II and eventually pulled the United States into that bloody vortex of Asian nationalism grafted onto the Cold War.

Today, New Caledonia, an archipelago in the South Pacific between New Zealand and Fiji, is still in turmoil, even after Macron’s emergency visit. The situation, characterized as “on the brink of civil war” in one report, has resulted in casualties, and even deaths, as well as extensive property damage. That same report noted “a video showed French police officer forcing a Kanak protester to his knees so that one officer could kick the man’s head…” 

The unrest had come about as a result of law to give voting rights to recent immigrants to the island, alienating the indigenous Kanak people. The law has been revoked, but the Kanak people are understandably uncomfortable with being a minority on their own island. 

Most Americans have never heard of New Caledonia, but that was not always the case. During World War II, it served as a key anchor in the U.S. fight to maintain sea lines of communication with Australia against the Japanese onslaught in the initial stages of the Pacific War.  The fuel and other supplies stockpiled at Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, proved critical to the Americans’ initial counteroffensives during 1942 in the Coral Sea and then in the Solomon Islands at the bloody, decisive contest for Guadalcanal. 

American strategists need to keep this history in mind, as well as the evolving situation in New Caledonia for a couple of reasons. First, Noumea played a pivotal role in the extraordinary logistical effort to keep hundreds of warships and their air wings fueled and armed. This endeavor proved to be no small challenge, requiring methodical planning, learning by doing, and years of fighting and dying across a vast expanse of ocean. The idea of rushing U.S. forces headlong into the fight in the Western Pacific was rejected in favor of the slower, more cautious island-hopping strategy that resulted in victory. 

True, the U.S. military might today possess a better initial basing position, but it could hypothetically be confronting a China that is far more powerful than Imperial Japan, which only had about a tenth of the U.S. economic might at the time of Pearl Harbor. Rushing into battle in the Western Pacific without all due preparation, for example in order to “rescue” Taiwan, could spell disaster as the U.S. fleet could sail straight into a trap of disastrous proportions.

Predictably, growing Chinese influence in the South Pacific is given as a reason to reinforce France’s position in the area. However, the instability in New Caledonia also reminds strategists to have a healthy respect for Asian nationalism – a transformative force at work in the region for at least a century. For starters, it sends a dubious message to align with the former European colonial powers in the region, whether the Dutch, the British, or the French. Thus, it may be unwise to attempt to further inject NATO into Asian security. 

In a related point, making AUKUS the “crown jewel” of U.S. security policy in the region also may trigger certain visceral negative reactions among Asian powers, since the Australians are sometimes viewed as “outsiders” and quite a few major Asian states have raised objections, aside from China. 

Finally, it essential to realize that much of the region may not rally to Washington’s side in the event of a clash with China. Just as the world is rather divided when it comes to the Russia-Ukraine War, a similarly diverse set of reactions could result from a China-U.S. conflict. These are good reasons why Washington should study the details of Asia’s often tragic modern history and also approach this complex region with greater humility, realism, and restraint.