The Islands Blocking Vanuatu-France Relations

French President Emmanuel Macron in Vanuatu

French President Emmanuel Macron attends the Melanesian art festival in Port Vila. Image by Ben Bohane

President Macron promises to resolve a territorial dispute with Vanuatu, writes Ben Bohane in Port Vila.

When French President Emmanuel Macron appeared at the Melanesian Arts Festival in Vanuatu recently, he received a rousing welcome from the crowd by speaking in the three official languages of Vanuatu: Bislama, French and English. 

Let me tell you how pleased I am to be with you, not only as a foreign head of state but as a neighbour, coming directly from Noumea, Macron told the crowd. 

He’s the first French president to visit this Francophone country (roughly half the population speak French) since Charles De Gaulle back in 1966. During the colonial period known as the “Condominium of the New Hebrides”, before the name change to Vanuatu at independence in 1980, this archipelago of 81 inhabited islands was administered by both Britain and France. 

It had a troubled birth as one of its main islands – Santo – tried to breakaway in 1980, secretly supported by France. It took the PNG Defence Force, supported by British paratroopers, to crush the Santo rebellion known as “the coconut war” and keep a united Vanuatu at independence. Lingering mistrust of France has remained as France continues to claim Matthew and Hunter islands in the far south, saying they belong to New Caledonia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. 

Ahead of Macron’s visit, MP Johnny Koanapo was quoted in the Daily Post newspaper arguing that Macron’s visit would be “futile” unless the French President addressed three key issues: the southern territorial claims; assisting French education in the country; and helping to get Vanuatu off Europe’s financial “grey list”.

Koanapo, who has been the Vanuatu government’s chief negotiator on the disputed islands, railed against an article by French geostrategist Antoine Bondaz ahead of Macron’s visit, which warned against growing Chinese influence, stating that France would help “enhance the sovereignty” of Pacific states. 

“Based on the article by Dr Bondaz, how do we see France as a sovereignty enhancer when they have not yet fully relinquished our sovereign maritime boundary, which is the reason why we have registered this dispute with the United Nations (under UNCLOS)?” MP Koanapo asked. 

“It is clear that if France was the only colonial power we had, we would still be crying for independence today”. 

In a bilateral meeting with Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, Macron brought a pledge of significant new aid funding and a promise to resolve the long standing territorial dispute between Vanuatu and France, which has been a major irritant in the relationship for decades. 

Matthew and Hunter islands (Umaeneag and Umaenupne in Aneityum language) in the far south of Vanuatu are rich fishing grounds claimed by both nations. It is difficult to validate France’s position, which is undermined by several key points Vanuatu regularly raises. Firstly, that Vanuatu’s southern Aneityum Island had long standing names and kastom stories relating to these uninhabited islands for generations before French settlement in New Caledonia. Secondly, that the indigenous Kanak chiefs themselves in New Caledonia have said the islands rightfully belong to Vanuatu. Thirdly, that geography lends weight to Vanuatu’s claims, since the islands are on the Vanuatu side of the tectonic Pacific plate as seen in this map.

There is some irony in France now playing the China card to assert “a new imperialism” is on the rise in the Pacific given its continuing hold over New Caledonia and Tahiti despite clear rumblings for independence there. France’s claim to Matthew and Hunter also risks the very thing it is warning about since Vanuatu government insiders say one reason Vanuatu was among the first nations to recognise China’s claims to the South China Sea was so that China would support Vanuatu’s claims to Matthew and Hunter.

Macron promised PM Kalsakau that their territorial dispute would be resolved by December . PM Kalsakau addressed the crowd that evening with Macron on stage beside him and said, We have talked about a topic that is important to the people of Vanuatu in relation to the problem for us in the southern Islands. The President has said that we will resolve the land problem between now and December. 

In a nation that strongly values kastom and symbolism, it was likely no accident that during the opening of the regional Melanesian Arts Festival, PM Kalsakau was carried aloft in a basket by the chiefs of Aneityum island, who have pressed their claims to their traditional fishing grounds in the south. 

Since Vanuatu first placed its flag on the southern islands in 1983 there have been several visits by the French navy to plant its own flag there. As recently as 2019 a French navy vessel went there to “polish” a brass plaque claiming French sovereignty, which drew the ire of Vanuatu officials. 

By laying down a timeline for resolution, Macron has committed France to negotiate in good faith and Vanuatu will hold him to it – the relationship will hinge substantially on the outcome of this dispute. 

In 2015 Vanuatu and its neighbour Solomon Islands reached agreement on their maritime boundary using kastom diplomacy. Now it is applying greater pressure on France to resolve its southern boundary.

Koanapo stated: “France’s control of our huge maritime boundary down south has significantly restricted our fishing space over the past 43 years, which is a loss of revenue for those years which France’s bilateral assistance cannot adequately compensate for.” 

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