By Rieko Hayakawa

The 13 May riots in the French territory of New Caledonia took the world by surprise. The territory is a known tourist destination. However, those following New Caledonian politics knew that the pro-independence groups had been holding large-scale demonstrations since around February 2024.

Pro-independence groups forcefully demanded the withdrawal of a new law that would allow an increase in voting rights. Pro-independence groups fear the law would increase the disparity between pro-government elements and the indigenous population. The 1998 Noumea Accord agreed upon in a referendum on New Caledonia’s political status, had restricted voting rights.

At the same time, the management of a nickel factory, which had guaranteed employment for the indigenous population, was in crisis. As the largest industry in New Caledonia, its troubles multiplied the insecurity.

Youth Problem

Recently youth aged 15-25 were reportedly responsible for torching and looting shops and public institutions, leading to large-scale chaos. The riots killed six indigenous youths and police officers. They also claimed the lives of civilians who did not have access to health care. Local police have pointed to signs of another group commanding the youths in the background.

Population growth is arguably the biggest problem in the Pacific Island countries, and more than 50 percent of the population is young. Micronesia and Polynesia have established immigration systems to the United States and New Zealand. However, none of the independent Melanesian countries have such systems.

Youth unemployment in New Caledonia was 46 percent in 2020. The Melanesian region accounts for 95 percent of the population of the Pacific Island countries and has a high population growth rate. The riots in the Solomon Islands also pointed to the presence of delinquent youths on the streets behind the peaceful demonstrations that turned violent. Education and employment issues for youth in Melanesian countries are a top priority.

Free and Open Indo-Pacific and Franco-Japanese Maritime Cooperation

Japan will host the 10th Pacific and Islands Leaders’ Summit, PALM10 in July. It cannot afford to ignore this issue. Therefore, what can Japan do?

In 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and the slogan made its appearance at the Pacific Islands Leaders Summit, PALM8. That was also the result of this author being invited to speak at two Inter-Parliamentary Committee study groups in Japan in 2017.

New Caledonia and French Polynesia also became official members of the Pacific Islands Forum, a co-hosting organisation of the Pacific Island Leaders Summit, in 2018. The issues of both regions became the subject of Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” The current US territories of Guam and American Samoa are also being considered to become members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

What does this mean? The American or French governments did not impose these organisations. They reflect the will of the island states to deal with common island issues that transcend political status. And for that, Japan’s role is expected.

Franco-Japanese Maritime Cooperation and Fukushima Treated Water

Five years have passed since 2019 when Prime Minister Abe agreed on French-Japanese maritime cooperation with President Emmanuel Macron. In early May 2024, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited President Macron in Paris and they agreed to start formal talks toward concluding a reciprocal access agreement (RAA). This would allow mutual traffic and joint training between Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and French forces.

Why maritime cooperation? France has territory in the Indo-Pacific Ocean region. And those islands form the largest exclusive economic zone in the world.

Why military cooperation? While the US military deployed in the Indo-Pacific has footholds in Hawaii, Japan, and Guam, Japanese Self-Defense Forces have visited New Caledonia, the French Military’s largest base, on every Indo-Pacific deployment. Moreover, a Japanese consulate was opened there in 2023.

French-Japanese maritime cooperation is originally aimed at security in the broad sense of the term, including the maritime environment and the control of illegal operations. It is also necessary to invite the US and French governments as observers to discuss the two countries’ support for Pacific island territories. That includes maritime surveillance to respond to criticism from the Pacific island countries over the Fukushima ALPs treated water. This will be a particularly important agenda item at this island summit.

Putting the Youth Issue on the Agenda

It is hard to imagine any opposition from the governments of the island states to placing the aforementioned youth issue at the heart of the PALM summit’s agenda.

Japan has 65 years of experience in youth exchange programs. Led by the Cabinet Office, they have been mainly with China, South Korea, and ASEAN countries. This program has also played a role in imperial diplomacy and contributed to the internationalisation of youth and local governments throughout Japan.

Until now, the French Pacific islands have not been covered.

Reconciliation Conference in Kyoto: the Midpoint between Paris and New Caledonia

Responding to the riots, President Macron called for an emergency meeting in Paris. However, no local leader seemed willing to leave chaotic New Caledonia to go to the other side of the world. As a result, President Macron made a hasty visit to New Caledonia to have a meeting with stakeholders.

However, rather than discuss serious political issues with a tired head after a 25-hour flight, I would suggest a peace conference at the mid-point, in Japan, especially in Kyoto, a location blessed with tradition, culture, and nature. Of course, Japan must remain neutral and avoid the kind of interference by the Azerbaijani government that reflects the Franco-Russian conflict.

Fostering New Caledonia’s Agricultural and Fisheries Industries

Finally, the history of Japan in New Caledonia should be kept in check. Before the Pacific war, 5,000 Japanese went to New Caledonia as contract laborers. After their contracts expired, they continued to develop the local mining, agriculture, fisheries, and salt fields. There was a time, also, when the New Caledonian economy would not have been possible without the Japanese.

The current slump in the nickel industry has hit local employment hard. In reflection, there is a need to diversify industries such as agriculture and fisheries. This is another area where Japan could contribute.