Macron's 'new imperialism' narrative 'an empty concept and desperate effort' to save France's marginalized status in South Pacific: experts
Published: Jul 28, 2023 10:38 PM
French President Emmanuel Macron visits a French navy patrol boat in Port Vila, Vanuatu, on July 27, 2023. Photo: AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron visits a French navy patrol boat in Port Vila, Vanuatu, on July 27, 2023. Photo: AFP

French president Emmanuel Macron has reportedly denounced so-called new imperialism in the South Pacific during a visit to the region, warning of a threat to the sovereignty of smaller states. Western media have attributed the label to China and the US, given the two countries' growing competition in the region. But it is "improper and ridiculous" to put China in the same seat as the hegemonic US, Chinese experts said. They described the label as an empty concept Macron grabbed to attack others in order to save its marginalized status in the Pacific region.

Macron is on a five-day visit to the South Pacific from July 24 to 29, which includes a stop in New Caledonia - a sui generis collectivity of overseas France in the southwest Pacific Ocean - and will continue in Papua New Guinea (PNG). This makes him the first French president who has travelled to independent countries in the Pacific region, and not only French overseas territories, according to media reports.     

France has sovereignty over three territories in the Pacific: New Caledonia, French Polynesia as well as Wallis and Futuna, according to The Guardian. 

Macron's visit coincides with that of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Papua New Guinea to discuss deepening ties and announce the deployment of a US Coast Guard vessel in August under a separate maritime law enforcement deal. The two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement in May that sets a framework for the US to refurbish PNG ports and airports for military and civilian use over 15 years. 

"There is in the Indo-Pacific and particularly in Oceania new imperialism appearing, and a power logic that is threatening the sovereignty of several states - the smallest, often the most fragile," Macron was quoted as saying in Vanuatu on Thursday, according to The Guardian. 

France sees itself as a vital player in the South Pacific region. The historic visit reflects the anxiety and concerns France feels under the pressure brought about by the US' active and aggressive activities in the South Pacific region, Chen Hong, executive director at the Asia Pacific Studies Center of East China Normal University, told the Global Times.   

The main aim of this visit is to reaffirm France's role in the region and further promote the implementation of France's Indo-Pacific strategy, said Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, echoing Chen.

Macron wants to convince regional countries that France is not an outsider but part of the region, as France has overseas territories there. But the validity of France's status in the region is in fact thin, as its territories there were obtained through colonialism, which is difficult for Macron to rationalize. This is why he avoids talking about it further and turns to another method of attacking other countries to help France build a positive image in the region, according to Cui. 

In the eyes of some French people, the competition between China and the US is a competition between old and new hegemony. This is a partial understanding rooted in their limited historical experience, Cui noted.   

The so-called new imperialism is just an empty concept or label Macron grabbed to save France's marginalized status in South Pacific region by attacking others - which, specifically, would be China and the US given the general background of the China-US competition, Cui pointed out.  

But, unlike the US, what China is doing is definitely not so-called new imperialism, but an effort to help regional countries to develop. Chinese experts asked why, if France really wants to demonstrate its positive role in the region, it didn't help regional countries to develop and only come to the region after it became strategically important.

The day before Macron made the "new imperialism" remarks, he mentioned increasing French forces in New Caledonia and warned that independence could mean a "Chinese naval base tomorrow."  "This is not called independence," Macron said, "France has a voice in the Pacific and Oceania."

The US has tried to hype so-called China's military base in Solomon Islands to deter South Pacific countries from cooperating with China, and Macron is just following in the US' steps, Cui said    

Some Western countries have been using so-called new imperialism and neo-colonialism to smear China's international cooperation, for example, in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, for years. But facts have proven that what China has done in these regions is nothing but cooperation. These old imperialist countries are just judging China by what they had done in the past and this is improper and ridiculous, Chen stressed.