11.02.2014 Author: Sofia Pale

China-France: a territorial dispute?

NEO 10China’s aggressive expansion throughout the world interferes with the interests of key countries, including France. In the last decade, the Chinese “soft power” was smoothly directed towards the favorite geostrategic French possession in the Pacific – French Polynesia, better known as Tahiti (the name of the main island). This territory stretches over 4,000 square km and has rich fishing resources (occupies 5 million square km). This is five times larger than the continental motherland.

Tahiti was visited not only by the charismatic French representatives like Paul Gauguin, but the English explorer James Cook, the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, the Russian ethnographer N. Miklouho-Maclay, the Norwegian explorer-researcher Thor Heyerdahl, the Russian painter from Vanuatu N. Mishutushkin and even the popular Soviet actor and singer Vladimir Vysotsky. In the late 1980s, Tahiti was ruled by the grandson of a White fugitive Russian general, Alexandre Léontieff. Unfortunately, in 1991, he was placed under house arrest, suspected of corruption and embezzlement of public funds.

In this French territory, located in the “heart” of the Pacific Ocean, the now non-operating nuclear testing ground is situated. Here, 192 tests were conducted by France from 1966 to 1996. After the forced ending of the nuclear programs, the French President J. Chirac promised that financing of the French Polynesia would continue (from 1996 to 2006). Local activists, in their turn, who have been fighting for their independence since 1970, wanted the end of the French rule right at the end of the compensation payment period.

However, in the period of 2000s, no one anticipated the financial crisis that struck in 2008. This fact forced the Tahitian freedom fighters to re-think their plans. First, they demanded from Paris damage compensation, caused by the nuclear tests (which, incidentally, is already considered as being more of a moral, rather than of a physical character). Later, they established close economic relationships with a new strong player in the Pacific – China.

The “Tsunami” of Chinese immigrants, which expanded all over Oceania islands in the mid-2000s, covered Tahiti as well. The Huaqiao (Overseas Chinese) accounted for 12% of the nearly 300,000 people in this French possession. Here the Chinese monopolized the retail trade, and now the Tahitians (80% of them being natives) instead of the phrase “going shopping”, use the phrase “going across China” (à travers la Chine). It is necessary to point out that Chinese capital has contributed to the emergence of a powerful China lobby in the local government.

One of the first secret Chinese protégés became a longtime supporter of Tahiti independence – Oscar Temaru, who in 2004, saying that he had Chinese roots on his mother’s side, came to the long-awaited power. The first step towards Tahiti becoming independent was an attempt to compensate for the French annual grants of approximately $1 billion (which is no less than 20% of GDP of French Polynesia) by introducing or increasing taxes for the local population. Local people could not stand such increased taxes for more than six months, thus, Gaston Floss became president and immediately canceled the taxes.

G. Floss ruled Tahiti almost continuously after 1984, having become “related” to Jacques Chirac. The latter is his youngest son’s godfather, and always supported the idea of Tahiti being a part of France. Nevertheless, the Tahitian people respected him because, being on friendly terms with the French president, he was able to achieve maximum autonomy for French Polynesia. Here we can mention the title of “president” for the head of Tahiti, the right to independently manage some aspects of domestic and regional policies without interference from Paris, as well as the recognition of the official status of the Tahitian language (although there are some problems with this issue on the level of the French constitution).

However, O. Temaru did not give up easily, and in the next couple of years, the two opponents succeeded each other every six months.

Finally, Gaston Tong Sang, a representative of the Chinese community, became the president of Tahiti. However, a year later, he was accused by some representatives of mass media of defending the interests of “a certain minority”. As a result, three candidates fought for the president’s post – O. Temaru, G. Floss and H. Tong Sang, referred to as the Trinity by the international community.

Meanwhile, Beijing found an approach to each one in the Trinity: in recent years, each of the leaders was accused of taking bribes (indirectly – Chinese capital). President G. Floss, having paid a visit to China in early January, was accused of corruption in 2014 (unofficially – in signing debt agreements with Beijing that were considered harmful to Tahiti). By the way, after G. Floss’s visit, he simplified the visa regime with China, in order to strengthen the flow of tourists and contract workers from China.

In the past decade, China trade relations with French Polynesia strengthened, so that almost all the black pearl exports – the only profitable sector of the economy of Tahiti – are directed to the Celestial Empire. After the global financial crisis in 2008-2010, France only profited when the economic rating in 2012 was lowered from AAA to AA+ by Fitch and Standard & Poor’s Agencies. Nevertheless, Paris continued to send the same amount of donations to prevent Tahiti from gaining economic independence and leaving French sovereignty.

However, by 2013, the sum of Chinese capital in the Tahiti economy was estimated at $5 billion, a sum that is greater than the French investments.

Finally, in early 2013, Beijing changed to an active attack, deciding to support O. Temaru, who came to power, in Tahiti obtaining independence and the renaming of the country to Maohi Nui. Beijing lobbied for the introduction of French Polynesia onto the Non-Self-Governing Territories List by the UN Special Committee on Decolonization.

Since China needs the greatest possible number of supporters in various international organizations, including the United Nations, in case of gaining independence, this state would be grateful to China, giving its vote as Beijing might require. Moreover, this was despite the critical argument of Chile representative at the UN Special Committee on Decolonization meeting in June 2013, who stated that “local supreme authorities (in French Polynesia) have fewer powers than any shabby mayor in my own country[1] .

If French Polynesia can gain independence, this tactic can be successfully applied to Easter Island, which belongs to Chile and wants to separate. Then there is Guam, and American Samoa, which do not want to belong to the U.S.A.; and the rebellious island of Pitcairn, being part of the UK, to Australian and New Zealand territories in the Pacific (of course, with a much smaller, but still possible probability).

It is not surprising that France, Australia, the U.S.A. and the UK did not participate during the deciding on the introduction of French Polynesia onto the Non-Self-Governing Territories List (by the way, Russia supported the decision of the UN).

Today the future of France and its South Pacific ownership depend on the political will of the President F. Hollande, who will either allow or not allow a Tahiti referendum on independence in 2014. The Trinity wants a referendum: G. Floss – to prove that 60% of the Tahitians will vote against separation from the “mother country”, G. Tong Sang agrees with G. Floss, while O. Temaru, on the contrary, believes that more than half of the Tahitians will vote for independence.

The already low popularity of F. Hollande will go down even more in case a referendum is held in Tahiti and China’s hopes to name this new state Maohi Nui will be fulfilled. In this case, Paris would face enormous difficulties, both inside and outside the country. French people do not forgive their presidents even small missteps, just recall the “Day of Rage” on January 27, 2014. Here it is possible to see the loss of the South Pacific “Heart” of France.

Moreover, China, which offered French Polynesia favorable loans, infrastructure projects and flows of tourist from China, will continue such policies towards other states. In addition, apparently, Beijing’s goal in the South Pacific will become the “liberation” of U.S. territories. 

Sofia Pale, PhD, Researcher of Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook. 

[1] As Session concludes, Special Committee on Decolonization reaffirms the inalienable right of French Polynesian people to Self-Determination / / Special Committee on Decolonization, 9th Meeting, General Assembly/COL/3258, 21 June 2013 – un.org / News / Press / docs/2013/gacol3258.doc.htm


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