Ben Morgan’s Pacific Update A simple explanation of this week’s military and political developments in the Pacific


New Caledonia, provides security lessons  

New Caledonia’s troubles continue this week as a large French military and police contingent arrived in the nation.  Although the level of violence has reduced because of this deployment, tension remains high. On 23 May, France’s president, Emmanuelle Macron arrived in New Caledonia discussing dialogue and trying to find a peaceful solution. 

The violence in New Caledonia was sudden but not unpredictable, it speaks to many simmering tensions across the South West Pacific. An area seen in Western media as peaceful and calm, an area to holiday in.  However, this is a romantic picture that comfortably neglects: colonialism, historic French and American nuclear tests, foreign exploitation of resources that contributes to present day inequity and local politics.

Some examples of sudden violence in the South West Pacific include:

  • Fiji’s coups in 1987, 2000 and 2006. Indigenous Fijian’s using their control of the army to secure political power in the nation. 
  • The long war in Bougainville, that was sparked by concerns about environmental damage caused by mining.
  • Tonga’s riots in 2007, ignited by demonstrations against the monarchy.
  • Solomon Islands descent into conflict in 2002 a feud between two ethnic groups.

Each a sudden and ‘unexpected’ explosion of violence, that caught external observers by surprise. It is important to try to understand the region’s underlying tensions. Unfortunately, France is not. So this situation is likely to continue, or get worse. However, New Caledonia provides useful lessons for people interested in managing stability and security in the South West Pacific; including:

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Rapidly deployable military forces are important to support stability in the Pacific

France’s ability to swamp Noumea with soldiers and para-military police to quickly restore order demonstrates the usefulness of rapidly deployable forces. The French police sent to Noumea are from the National Gendarmerie, a branch of the military responsible for public order and security. Hence, the large number of armoured vehicles and assault rifles seen in video footage.  Additionally, the local military garrison was rapidly reinforced with additional soldiers.  The military is supporting civilian police by securing government facilities. The intervention has been swift and quickly restored order, providing an opportunity to talk.  A lesson of many peace-keeping operations is that a pre-condition for discussion is a secure and safe environment. Military force may not be able to solve political problems but it can provide the community with the safety required to debate the issues.  Essentially, allowing the moderate majority to drive discussions, rather than violent extremists. 

Australia and New Zealand’s defence forces have been active evacuating their nation’s citizens from Noumea. Another example of the usefulness of a defence force that is well-trained, well-equipped and ready to deploy.  A lesson that should inform New Zealand’s defence funding debate.  New Zealanders were evacuated from Noumea’s domestic airport using C 130 Hercules aircraft. A military aircraft able to land on shorter, rougher runways than civilian airliners need. 

Disinformation and the Pacific’s inter-connectedness with the world

Amongst many people living in the South West Pacific, there is a perception that the region is a quiet backwater that aggressive nations care little about and that disinformation and foreign political interference are not a feature of local politics.  This is a naive position, during the recent Solomon Islands elections the US Embassy was required to issue statements countering local disinformation.  This month Canada’s ‘Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions’ published an initial 194-page report detailing foreign interference in recent Canadian elections.  

And, this week several reputable international news agencies including the Guardian and Al Jazeera have highlighted French concerns about external interference in New Caledonia’s troubles.  Azerbaijan is a small nation in central Asia that has been at war with its neighbour, Armenia.  France has a significant Armenian community and history of supporting Armenia.  Azerbaijan on the other hand is friendly with Russia and supports Kanak independence, hosting a pro-independence for French colonies conference in its capital Baku in 2023, titled ‘Towards the Complete Elimination of Colonialism.’

The relationship between Kanaks and Azerbaijan appears to be strong, rioters flying the nation’s flag and social media channels carrying traffic that supports the relationship.  The French are unhappy about this activity, Interior Minister, Gerald Darminian even stating in a television interview that “I regret that some of the Caledonian pro-independence leaders have made a deal with Azerbaijan.” On a more pragmatic note, Tik Tok has been shut down in the colony, possibly as part of a larger strategy to counter foreign influence.

The truth about Azerbaijan’s influence is impossible to confirm at this stage. However, Azerbaijan is supported by Russia and both countries are at odds with France.  Encouraging domestic problems in a French colony is a good way to divert attention away from Europe. Doing so on social media is a cheap way, that has proven highly successful, and is a Russian area of expertise.  So, my suggestion is to monitor this situation and watch how it develops because there is a strong likelihood that there is foreign involvement. The modern world is completely interconnected, so this type of activity will become more prevalent and more effective over time as the tactics for disinformation evolve. 

France’s role in the Pacific

France desperately wants to be a major power and its Pacific colonies are ‘part and parcel’ of this vision. Not only do they provide France with a military and cultural base in the Pacific the development of deep-sea mining opportunities creates potential for them to provide huge wealth.  Both factors mean that France is unlikely to want independence in New Caledonia.

In my opinion, colonies belong in history books and France needs to look at evolving its role in the Pacific.  The UK still has considerable influence in the Pacific even after relinquishing its colonies.  France needs to accept that it is ‘on the losing side of history,’ around the world only a handful of colonies remain and most are small oddities like the Falkland Islands. France needs to change its position, or risk being pushed out of the Pacific entirely.  The longer France hangs on the more disruptive their colonial adventure is likely to be for Pacific stability. Nations like the US, Australia and New Zealand need to avoid being drawn into a conflict that is morally indefensible. 

In summary, the situation in New Caledonia is very dangerous and could trigger similar violence in French Polynesia, another French colony with a large indigenous population that want independence.  A descent into civil unrest or French rule being replaced with a governments hostile to the US, Australia and New Zealand, is something that must be avoided. 

China conducts large naval exercises near Taiwan

This week Taiwan inaugurates its new President, Lai Ching-Te who China dislikes. Therefore, the People’s Liberation Army’s naval and air components spent the week running a series of threatening activities that simulate blockading and invading Taiwan.  

This is another example of China’s aggressive foreign policy, using demonstrations of force to try and achieve political goals.  An aspect of the activity that should be of interest is the close approaches being made to Taiwan’s offshore islands by Chinese vessels.  China is using Coast Guard vessels very close to Taiwanese islands like Kinmen, forcing Taiwanese ships to intercept them. 

An interesting tactic that demonstrates how hybrid war blurs conventional lines, by using law enforcement vessels to probe restricted areas instead of military vessels, China challenges Taiwan to over-react and use military force. Meanwhile, the intelligence gathered by a Chinese ‘Coast Guard’ vessel is just as useful as if it was gathered by a military vessel.  The use of hybrid tactics like these needs to be carefully studied so that counter tactics can be developed.  

New Zealand defence spending to drop by 6.6%

After signalling in early May that defence spending would rise, Reuters reported on 22 May that the nation’s defence spending will in fact drop by 6.6%.  

This cut is at odds with the nation’s ally Australia and with partner nations. New Zealand’s 2024-25 Financial Year defence budget will drop from 1 to 0.9% of GDP.  Putting this into perspective Australia’s is currently 2% of GDP and is predicted to reach 2.4% of GDP by 2034.  

Defence Minister, Judith Collins has signalled the need for future increases but said that they should be carefully planned and based on a defence review that will be finished in June this year.  This cut is unlikely to affect New Zealand Defence Force capabilities in the short-term and the government’s stated position is that it is concerned about security issues so we may see increased spending in the future. 

The Reuters article is available here – 

Melanesian update 

A regular update on the Pacific’s least reported trouble spot; Melanesia. 

Fiji drug concerns

New Zealand media highlighted the impact of methamphetamine on Fiji this week. Pointing out not only the health and social impacts but also the insidious growth of corruption within Fijian law enforcement. Corruption fuelled by the profit to be made from drugs. 

Unfortunately, this reporting is consistent with the Lowery Institute’s 2022 analyses ‘Drug trafficking in the Pacific Islands: The impact of transnational crime’ that summarises the issues as follows “In a region plagued by “unmet development challenges”, transnational crime and illicit drugs are a cross-cutting threat to development, security, and governance in the Pacific.” The Pacific faces significant drug trafficking issues that undermine the rule of law.  It is important that the larger powers support nations like Fiji to address the international drug trade and limit corruption that weakens important state institutions like law enforcement, the justice system and governance generally because when government fails – states fail. 

Solomon Islands and Australia

Immediately after Jerimiah Manele’s new government was elected, Australia reached out diplomatically to Solomon Islands. Australian Defence Minister, Richard Marles met with the new Prime Minister and announced AUS $ 18 million in aid to support border protection and another AUS $ 45 million towards the Naha Birthing Centre in Honiara. 

During an interview on 21 May, Marles confirmed that he had discussed security with Prime Minister Manele and that both parties acknowledged the success of Australia’s support to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force during the election. Marles acknowledged that Solomon Islands is currently reviewing its security relationships and that Australia is waiting for the results of the review. 

This visit is a demonstration of how seriously Australia is taking its relationship with Solomon Islands. Obviously, waiting patiently and hoping to reset the relationship post-election.  



Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack


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