Analysis - A Nouméa-hosted South Pacific Defence Ministers' meeting (SPDMM) ended on Wednesday with resolutions to create a regional Pacific Military Academy to train regional officers with a clear focus on civil protection and disaster reduction, as well as fighting illegal fishing.
The meeting gathered members of the 10-year-old SPDMM, namely France, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga, with observing delegations from the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Among resolutions announced at a press conference on Wednesday by French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu, is the offer to set up a regional training centre in Nouméa for the benefit of a yearly up to 240 military officers from neighbouring Pacific island states, Lecornu confirmed.
The project would also involve French trainers to be deployed in neighbouring Pacific States with a possibility to access mainland France's top military academies.
"So for the first time, we will have an instrument of solidarity which will provide an answer to what our neighbouring States want", Lecornu told local media.
Other French announcements include a strengthened representation in New Caledonia's region, in the form of a permanent military attaché based in the French Embassy in the Fiji capital Suva as well as a Nouméa-based specialised advisor for each partner country in the region, he added.
He also confirmed that over the next six years, a budget of some five billion Euros (5.4 billion US dollars) would be dedicated to the French armed forces in the Pacific, including New Caledonia and French Polynesia, with a strong focus on infrastructure.
Under the general principle of "interoperability", the gathering of South Pacific defence ministers not only wants to fight illegal fishing in the vast region, provide a coordinated assistance to Pacific neighbours affected by natural disasters, but also present a united front in the face of a growing trend of "block-forming", especially in the Northern part of the Pacific ocean and in Asia, where confrontation is increasing between China and the US..
The meeting also endorsed an Australian suggestion to further strengthen intelligence sharing and the setting up of a "Pacific intervention group" which would aim to offer a faster response to the needs of Pacific island states.
Protest in downtown Nouméa
But this week's meeting in Nouméa also prompted a demonstration organised by the Union Calédonienne (UC) party, one of the components of New Caledonia's umbrella pro-independence front, the FLNKS.
The UC had recently reactivated what it calls a "Field Action Coordination Cell" (FACC), with the help of non-FLNKS organisations and groups, including the radical USTKE union.
However, other FLNKS member parties, such as the more moderate UPM and PALIKA, have since urged their followers not to engage in those FACC-organised actions.
An estimated 1,500 participants on Tuesday marched in downtown Nouméa to denounce what they termed the "remilitarisation" of New Caledonia, arguing a reinforced based there would make the French Pacific entity a target, just like Pearl Harbour during World War II.
"In the Pacific region, we are at peace. Let's stop manufacturing wars (...) we are not at war with anyone in the Pacific or Asia '', FACC coordinator Christian Tein told local TV Calédonia.
'Don't mix army and politics' - Lecornu
"It's not about militarisation, it's more about what you order the military to do. Everyone can see that those vessels stationed in New Caledonia's naval base are not war vessels, these are patrol boats and frigates that specialise in protection. (...) I would really call on everyone not to involve the armed forces in the local political debate (...) The reality is that, in face of threats posed by climate change and natural disasters, we are all equal (...) whether you are for or against independence, unfortunately, there are global threats that concern everyone", the French minister said.
"I agree with those, pro-independence or not, who fear militarisation in the region and who say they prefer peace to war. But we (at the SPDMM) spoke only about fighting against illegal fishing and militarised civil security. If they no longer want armed forces, then who will intervene in the high seas to repel those who come near New Caledonia to steal their fish stocks. If they refuse that armed forces come here to train officers or deploy to rescue people in the region, does this mean from now on, we will tell Fiji, PNG, Tonga and Vanuatu that when a natural disaster strikes, we won't come to help anymore? No. We have a duty of solidarity", he stressed.
Earlier this week, on the sidelines of the SPDMM, time was also allocated to bilateral meetings between Lecornu and its SPDMM counterparts.
One of the most prominent bilateral relations this week was further reinforced with Australia.
The Nouméa meeting coincided with a visit in Australia by French foreign affairs minister Catherine Colonna, who held talks with her Australian counterpart Penny Wong in Canberra, on Monday and Tuesday.
In a joint press conference, both ministers said they now considered each other as "key partners".
"The Indopacific is a top priority for France. We are determined to step up our cooperation with key partners in the region, to cope with global challenges (...) Australia has been for long, still is, and will remain a key partner of France in the Pacific", Colonna told Australian media.
"Today (...) we are adopting an ambitious roadmap for a profoundly renewed partnership (...) It took us 18 months of hard work", she stressed, adding that the two countries will "enhance the interoperability of armed forces through reciprocal access to military facilities and through increased joint activities".
The 2024 SPDMM is scheduled to take place in Auckland, New Zealand.