Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 04:11 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 04:11 | SYDNEY

There more to New Caledonia

29 September 2009 12:15

Nic Maclellan makes a timely reminder of Australia’s cyclical blind spot across the Coral Sea. Last week marked the sixty-ninth anniversary of Australia’s involvement in installing Free French control in New Caledonia — a mostly forgotten but key step in securing Australia’s north-eastern flank at the absolute nadir of Allied efforts during the Second World War.

The frequent omission of New Caledonia in much of Australia’s contemporary thinking on the Pacific, and Melanesia more specifically, belies the significance of our Coral Sea neighbour — both at the strategic level, and at the human and societal levels.

On 19 September 1940, an Australian cruiser, HMAS Adelaide (pictured), faced down the guns of the coastal forts and a Vichy gunboat to install a Free French governor in Nouméa. The action brought about a change in the colony’s allegiance that would deny a South Pacific bastion to a then-menacing Japan, and deliver a future port and staging base rivalling San Francisco to the Allied Pacific campaign. Little known due to wartime censorship, this action was a small, albeit important step towards eventual victory for the Allies.

The presence of HMAS Adelaide during the ‘rallying’ of New Caledonia to Free France undoubtedly ensured the action’s success. Had New Caledonia remained Vichy by the time Japan had entered the war, its potential role as a forward base for Japanese operations would have undoubtedly changed the course, and possibly the outcome of the Pacific War.

Since her annexation in 1853, Australian perceptions of New Caledonia have continued to ebb and surge, yet New Caledonia's geo-strategic significance to Australia’s north-eastern approaches and her recurrent role in Australian regional foreign policy remains unchanged, even today.

Yet we often seem to overlook the existence of New Caledonia and all its complexities, to our mutual disadvantage. The ethnic Kanak population constitute a sizeable proportion of wider Melanesia, and their story — past, present and future — is germane to the rest of the South Pacific community.

The substantial, high-quality scientific research and development conducted in New Caledonia into the environment, natural resources, energy and climate all has relevance to the wider Pacific.

From a security perspective, our EEZs are contiguous, and French military, maritime, intelligence and border security capabilities represent considerable potential for even deeper and broader cooperation than present.

The selective blindness isn’t all one way either. Caledonian obliviousness or diffidence to many initiatives and programs here in Australia and elsewhere in the Pacific is equally puzzling, and shouldn’t only be put down to a language barrier.

New Caledonia’s decision on its political future (see Denise Fisher’s post) is important not just for its inhabitants but also for the region. However, our collective inability to have a universally sophisticated engagement with its people and government — one that transcends its political circumstances — unnecessarily hinders our own ability to resolve many of the twenty-first century challenges facing the South Pacific region. On both sides of the Coral Sea, we can do better.

The historical datapoints in this post are drawn from a previous article published in the Journal of the Australian Naval Institute: 'An Expedition in Regime Change: Australia’s party to the Ralliement of New Caledonia during World War II'. Image reproduced with kind permission from the Sea Power Centre Australia.