It took me a while to understand how things really work in French Polynesia. We are talking about approximately 120 scattered islands, dispersed in the South Pacific Ocean, occupying a maritime area roughly the size of the European continent.
When I first arrived, I spent much of my time in Papeete, the capital, on Tahiti. The first thing that grabbed my attention there was the sizable Chinese presence, aside from the Maohi (Polynesian Maori) population, and the many signs in the center of Papeete written both in French and Chinese.
I was born in Florence, Italy, in a neighborhood home to one of Europe’s largest Chinese communities, and so I am used to bars, restaurants, and commercial hubs with Chinese signs. Still, I think it is natural that I, or anyone, should wonder how so many Chinese ended up, literally, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, otherwise known as the middle of nowhere, and what it means for the balance of power over the next century in a region of the world that the Chinese Communist Party believes it is destined to dominate.
What is now known as French Polynesia was uninhabited until around 200 BCE. It was then settled over centuries by Oceanic sailors exploring the Pacific on their outriggers and landing, shipwrecked or not, on these paradisaic atolls. Western encounters with Tahiti would wait until the 18th century, when British explorer Samuel Wallis was the first European to spot the island; he was followed by Louis Antoine de Bougainville and Captain James Cook.
The Pōmare dynasty was founded when the Tahitian chieftain Tu earned the support of the British, including Captain James Cook and Protestant missionaries, and unified Tahiti’s chiefdoms, along with Mo’orea, Meheti’a, and Teti‘aroa, forming the Kingdom of Tahiti as King Pōmare I. Pōmare’s son, Pōmare II, converted to Protestantism, and brought the whole population of his Kingdom along with him. French Catholic missionaries settled instead on the Gambier and Marquesas Islands. Later, when they arrived to Tahiti, the Catholic missionaries were expelled by Queen Pōmare IV, leading ultimately to the Franco-Tahitian War. In 1847, Queen Pōmare IV agreed to conduct her rule under a French protectorate.
The end of the Pōmare dynasty in 1880 let the island and its archipelago become the most important colony of the French domaine. Known as EFO, “Établissement Français de l’Océanie,” this territory would come to include all those other islands known today as part of French Polynesia, or, in Tahitian, “Pōrīnetia farāni.”
Thirty-eight years ago, in 1984, French Polynesia was finally granted internal autonomy, after years of negotiations with France; it is labeled by the United Nations as a Non-Self-Governing Territory. Ruled by a local president, who is the head of government in a democratic and multiparty system, it benefits from 2 billion euros in annual funding from France, which pays a good amount of money for the global strategic positioning and sense of imperial grandeur that rule over the islands allows.
It goes without saying that French Polynesia, much like other Pacific islands, has always attracted wide international interest due to its geostrategic position. Despite having a small population (less than 300,000 inhabitants in total, atolls included), and apparently very limited resources, French Polynesia remains crucial to both Chinese and Western strategic concerns. That’s because French Polynesia is tantamount to a power projection highway, running through the heart of the Pacific into Asia, and connecting the military forces stationed on a sweep of islands sprinkled between Hawaii, Australia, and the Philippines along the way.
Part of the now very large Chinese Polynesian community settled in Tahiti at the end of the 19th century, most of them Hakka, originally brought as indentured servants from the south of China. This was a population that, centuries ago, was forced by famine from northeastern China and reached the southern coasts, committing themselves for hundreds of years to fishing. Representing a good third of the French Polynesian economy, some of the richest Polynesians in Tahiti today are Chinese Polynesian, like Robert Wan, who introduced pearl farming to French Polynesia in the ‘70s and Tahitian pearls to the world. They do not have any relationship with the Chinese Communist Party and would strongly prefer for things to remain cozy and secure under the democratic umbrella of their beloved island, which was hit hard by COVID and is now caught in something of a debt crisis. Enter China.
French Polynesia, much like the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands—both major maritime passageways—offers a good amount of untapped resources that China needs to feed its hungry industries and people. It also represents a voting bloc that China needs to expand its foreign power in international institutions that have been conditioned over the past decades to serve Chinese interests, and whose membership benefits from Chinese investment and sometimes security assistance. The Pacific islands represent an important part of China’s maritime Silk Road, with China trying to include them in its Belt and Road Initiative by boosting economic aid, investing in infrastructure projects, and replacing diplomatic ties to Taipei with diplomatic ties to Beijing.
According to Chinese analyses, two security threats in the region make it urgent for China to expand its diplomatic and physical reach: The first threat includes political instability, piracy, terrorism, transnational crime, and climate disaster in the Pacific region. The second threat is all about the perceived American threat, since the natural geographical line traced by these islands acts as the perfect American barrier to Chinese maritime expansion.
I had the opportunity to discuss the Polynesian political situation with Gaston Flosse, the first and five-time president of French Polynesia, “the old lion,” who has been active in politics for 40 years. He is now 91 years old.
I kicked off the interview with a single word, not even a question: “Politics.” “Polynesia represents the strategic and geostrategic point of view, something that France will never give up,” he replied. “We need France, France needs us.” The goal of his party, since he founded it, has always been to defend the French presence in the Polynesian domain.
We began our conversation by talking about the big Polynesian referendum held by General Charles de Gaulle right after the Algerian crisis, and also about the decision to displace French nuclear experiments from Algeria to Polynesia in the 1960s.
“For de Gaulle, this referendum had two meanings,” Flosse says. “The first was the acceptance of the French Constitution by the colony and the institution of the Fifth Republic, and to define then the limits of this nation: Do you want to be French? Yes. Would you like to be independent from France? No. All other overseas countries also voted not to quit, except for Guinea.”
“In 1977, we created the party Tāhō’era‘a–Huira‘atira (People’s Rally) and we engaged actively on the political scene. We had a French governor ruling the country, a state official deciding all matters: budget, nominations, organization. Everything was in his hands. We didn’t have much space to express our opinions. But of course he was perceived as a tourist, because we were born here, we spent all year long here. That is why the idea for autonomy arose. Autonomy for us meant a Polynesian president, a parliament presided over by Polynesians and elected by Polynesians, while continuing of course the relationship with France. But France wanted the president of Polynesia to be French and to be chosen by France. We can discuss anything but this, they said.”
Flosse essentially wanted to realize Gaullist principles: A mix of self-determination and realpolitik. Negotiations were strenuous, but because of the Cold War, and France’s attempt to become the third nuclear power in the world, Flosse succeeded. In 1984, a new statute granted French Polynesia internal autonomy.
Part of the price of the autonomy that Flosse won was acceding to French nuclear experiments. At the beginning, French Polynesia largely benefited from French nuclear experiments, Flosse said. But he was worried about what might occur in the future, without this huge new source of income to which they had grown accustomed.
French President Francois Mitterrand halted testing in 1992, but in 1995, when Jacques Chirac was elected president, he announced that France would conduct an additional eight underground nuclear tests. Under resulting international pressure, France conducted only six. In 1996 the experiments came to an end. Chirac and Flosse had always been very close, and Chirac pledged almost $2 billion in compensation for the loss of the French nuclear testing program.
“We then had to face reality,” Flosse says. “Our economy was based on tourism, some fishery—not that much—the pearl market, which was going quite well at that time. We invited retired state officials to spend their retirement here, which counted for about 22 billion Pacific francs, by the way. Autonomy has worked quite well. We only had a moment with the pro-independence movement, the one founded by Oscar Temaru, that brought all institutions to a standstill, when he lost the election, and that happened about 10 years ago.”
“What about China?” I asked.
“There are quite a lot of Chinese fishing vessels around,” he replied. “The temptation to do business with the Chinese is real and high. Tens of thousands of people have fallen into poverty, many companies have gone bankrupt, tourist resorts have been shut down. Those two years of COVID were a plague. Some signals of destabilization have begun to be felt.”
“Sovereignty and independence is important,” he continued, “but I am perfectly aware that we can’t be independent without financial means. These 5 million square kilometers of ocean hide an impressive amount of rare earth and gas. But we do not have money or know-how in order to further our search.”
“I guess the Chinese often knock on your door,” I said. “Do you have any concern about the current geopolitical situation? Can the Chinese take it all?”
“Not as long as I am here,” he said.
But Mr. Flosse, with all due respect, is not eternal. It’s unclear what will happen after he dies, as it seems his country is facing the same problem all other democratic countries in the world are experiencing: the lack of a new, fresh and competent ruling class.
It’s not hard to find evidence of one thing that seems likely to come soon. Flosse himself told me he was approached by Wang Cheng, one of the pioneers of aquaculture in West Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. Wang has served as CEO of the Shanghai Jinhui Deep Sea Fisheries since 2004, is a shareholder of the Pan Pacific Foods company on the Marshall Islands, and is president of Tahiti Niu Ocean Foods. China accounts for two-thirds of the world’s reported aquaculture production. Mr. Wang is a pillar of this booming Chinese industry.
“Mr. Wang proposed a huge aquaculture project to me,” says Flosse. “Negotiations took place, but it wasn’t easy to find the right agreement. [I vetoed] categorically [any] Chinese workers and employees on the construction sites. The deal could only be concluded if the Chinese accepted local employees and transferred all competencies to the Polynesian territories.”
The project is today still on standby due to political complications. France forbids Polynesia to accept any deal and to do any business with China. Several people around Mr. Wang have been indicted for fraud and money laundering.
“Here’s another episode,” said Flosse. “I received the Chinese president’s delegation. China is the biggest producer of rare earths. They said, ‘We have a proposal for you. I said, ‘Let’s hear it.’ They said, ‘We are going to rent all the ocean surface you own for exploration and the necessary research. We will pay you good money. When the research comes to an end, we will keep the monopoly on it.’ It goes without saying that I denied the offer and my answer was a firm no.”
“I’ll tell you about a third episode,” he went on. “I was in Hawaii. I saw all those beautiful resorts, and I had at that time about 57 hectares of land here, perfect for a project of that size. I told myself, ‘I should ask for some loan from the Chinese, maybe they can help me out with this project. France didn’t want me to ask them for any money, but I did it my way. In fact, the Chinese suggested something like 2.30%-2.50% interest on the loan. Far too much. So I made a trip to Abu Dhabi. They were very enthusiastic and offered me 1.50%-1.80% interest on the loan. I then got back to the Chinese and asked them why they needed such high interest.”
So it looks like China is circling French Polynesia like a shark. But Flosse still considers France the main problem because Paris is not investing enough in Polynesia, he says; every one of the grand projects they propose to improve the Polynesian economy comes unglued.
The permeability of Polynesia by Chinese commercial (and political) influence is mainly due to its fragile economy. The lack of eco-friendly planning, the absence of energy plants—despite the immense potential offered by the sun and wind—the lack of developed aqueducts, the dependence on imports for most goods, and the very high import tax, all make Polynesia the perfect prey to economic opportunists. Agriculture is mainly domestic. There is a little tuna fishing along the coast for domestic consumption, but no properly developed fishing sector. The fact that the Paul Gauguin Museum is abandoned, covered by sharp brushwood and vegetation, gives the perfect picture of the islands’ dire straits, while COVID reduced many poor Polynesians to abject poverty.
French Polynesia does not miss out on misinformation campaigns, either, or on growing global populism. I had the occasion to share a few words with Oscar Temaru, Flosse’s rival—the leader of the pro-independence party and himself a five-time president of French Polynesia. Anti-imperialist, anti-American, anti-France, he says that without a doubt he will go along with the Chinese if it means getting rid of France.
Beijing would therefore seem to have a perfect opportunity to undermine the islands’ historical commitment to and relationships with Western countries while depriving the French and U.S. navies of a valuable line of defense in the Pacific. Without a sustainable way forward in the new world order, or competent planning from Paris, Polynesia seems likely to entertain Chinese offers.
Verdiana Garau is a political analyst based in Dubai.