After the G20 and a flying visit to the French Pacific dependency of New Caledonia, Francois Hollande is back in Australia for the first state visit by a French President.

Issues like trade, investment and climate change will be high on the agenda, with Hollande accompanied by a high-powered delegation of French corporate leaders. But Australia and France have also been quietly negotiating a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA) to expand joint defence operations in the south Pacific.

Earlier this month, Australian Defence Minister David Johnston met his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, in Perth. Among a range of global security concerns, the two defence ministers discussed the finalisation of the MLSA treaty.

An agreement to share logistics and access to bases in the region would be a significant extension to existing defence co-operation, which comes under the 2006 “Agreement between Australia and France regarding Defence Co-operation and Status of Forces”.

This Defence Co-operation Agreement (DCA), signed by the Howard government, provides a legal framework for military co-operation between the two countries, with provisions covering the status of Australian forces deployed on French territory and vice versa.

Negotiations to expand defence co-operation through a joint logistics agreement were first discussed during a September 2008 visit to Australia by then-French defence minister Herve Morin.

At the time, Morin said the MLSA would “allow Australia to use New Caledonia’s bases for logistic support [mainly for naval forces, but for all Australian operations], and it’s well understood equally that Australia could be a point of similar support for French forces, in particular naval forces”.

Morin stressed the importance of New Caledonia for France’s military co-operation with Australia:

“France is in the process of restructuring its defence capabilities and we have decided that New Caledonia will become a major presence and major base in the Pacific. We decided to do this because New Caledonia is close to Australia and for us this base in New Caledonia will be the means through which we will grow our cooperation with Australia.”

Australia-France relations rapidly improved under the Rudd and Gillard governments. In 2012, prime minister Kevin Rudd and France’s foreign affairs minister Alain Juppe signed a joint statement on strategic partnership, highlighting a range of common strategic interests across the globe.

Under Labor, the Department of Defence received a mandate to negotiate the MLSA in 2010, which led to a series of informal discussions with French officials to determine the scope of an agreement. A Department of Defence spokesperson said: “Negotiation of this treaty level document is complex with nations seeking respective legal, financial, diplomatic and operational clearance of proposed text and provisions. Once in draft, Australia and France conducted a formal meeting and negotiation to arrive at an agreed text for the document.”

When Johnston and Le Drian met earlier this month, Le Drian proposed that France host a trilateral meeting between France, Australia and New Zealand next year in New Caledonia’s capital Noumea to discuss further cooperation on maritime surveillance in the Pacific islands.

For many years, Australia and France have maintained programs of defence co-operation in the Pacific through training, officer exchanges and joint military exercises (like the Southern Cross exercises held every two years in New Caledonia).

Existing humanitarian and maritime surveillance operations come under the 1992 France-Australia-New Zealand (FRANZ) agreement. Australia now hopes to expand the Quadrilateral Defence Group, which links France and the three ANZUS partners in the Pacific.

Australian defence planners have already proposed that the Royal Australian Navy could utilise port facilities in New Caledonia, such as the Pointe Chaleix naval base in Noumea. The 2012 Australian Force Posture Review notes that: “Australia can also use facilities and infrastructure in New Zealand and French New Caledonia to support our operations in the South Pacific.”

According to a French Senate commission, an extra agreement on logistics support will “allow Australians to benefit from the military installations in New Caledonia and for French military to access Australian installations”.

The 2006 DCA also includes provisions that allow intelligence sharing between the French military and the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation (AGO).

Over the last decade, AGO (formerly the Defence Intelligence Geospatial Organisation) has been involved in geospatial mapping in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and other Pacific island countries. AGO notes that geospatial analysts “can derive information including maps, charts and digital topographic information to support a range of military tasks, such as battlefield analysis, employment of weapons systems and troop movements”.

Recent French defence white papers have proposed major restructuring of France’s overseas military deployments, including the reduction of forces in French Polynesia. But the French military are reluctant to lose their outposts in the South Pacific, with senior officers arguing that the navy has a role to play in the face of China’s rising naval power (even though French forces in the South Pacific are a long way from strategic tension points in east Asia).

Earlier this year, the chief of staff of the French Navy Admiral Bernard Rogel testified to the French Senate: “Concerning the Pacific, the reduction of military capacities is temporary, since new BATSIMAR vessels will be deployed in 2017-20 and our three multi-mission vessels will be adapted for operations in the islands.”

Lost in all this discussion are the perspectives of the indigenous peoples living in France’s Pacific dependencies. Australia’s focus on improving military relations with France raises some disquiet amongst independence activists in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Decisions taken today about France’s military presence in New Caledonia will impact on the looming decision about the territory’s future political status. New Caledonia is scheduled to hold a referendum on self-determination before the end of 2018. While they welcome the military’s role in humanitarian operations, independence leaders are less enthusiastic about other military activities. The violence of the 1980s that pitted the French army against Kanak independence activists has been forgiven, but not forgotten.

Peter Fray

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