27 Mar 2017

Signs of movement in Vanuatu's boundary dispute with France

2:30 pm on 27 March 2017

France has recently submitted a proposal for boundary negotiations with Vanuatu.

This comes amid signs of a change in the way a long-running boundary dispute between Vanuatu and New Caledonia is negotiated.

Hunter island.

Hunter island. Photo: WikiCommons

Vanuatu's government is reviewing the new French proposal on boundary negotiations.

However it remained tight-lipped about whether this advanced protracted negotiations over the tiny islets of Matthew and Hunter.

Both Vanuatu and France lay claim to the remote volcanic islands which lie to Vanuatu's south, and the east of the French territory of New Caledonia.

In 1976, prior to the former New Hebrides gaining independence as Vanuatu, France annexed Matthew and Hunter islands to New Caledonia, rather than maintaining them as part of the former colony it ruled jointly with Britain, the condominium.

Vanuatu's government rejected the French take on sovereignty, claiming its own sovereignty over the islets since day one.

Numerous attempts since the early 1980s by Vanuatu to plant its flag on the islets were blocked by France whose powerful navy patrols the area.

Over the years France maintained an unmanned weather station on Matthew.

Vanuatu still argues that cartographically, geographically and culturally, the islets are part of its archipelago.

The red marker shows where Matthew and Hunter are in relation to Vanuatu and New Caledonia.

The red marker shows where Matthew and Hunter are in relation to Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Photo: Google maps

The islets themselves would not seem to represent much in the form of resources.

However, securing rights to the territorial waters around them could offer significant potential wealth in marine resources, rare earth minerals and oil deposits.

Signs of movement

The dispute has rarely looked close to being resolved.

But Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Bruno Leingkon was invited to Paris in January to discuss a way forward for the dispute.

Prime Minister Charlot Salwai was also in Europe that month for a series of talks.

While no official statement emerged regarding Matthew and Hunter, Vanuatu government sources say negotiations will now no longer be between Port Vila and the French High Commission in New Caledonia.

It's understood that Vanuatu will instead negotiate with France's High Commissioner in Port Vila.

Taking negotiations away from the orbit of Noumea could simplify proceedings, at least for France.

New Caledonia's FLNKS Movement which represents the territory's indigenous Kanaks had, in recent years, waded into the debate by agreeing the islands belong to Vanuatu.

Like Port Vila, the FLNKS considers Matthew and Hunter as part of Vanuatu's Tafea Province - under traditional relationships, Kanaks have links to the islands.

Endorsement by the FLNKS however has no legal impact in this dispute.

France has taken the matter to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in New York.

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Moana Carcasses Photo: RNZ

There is somewhat of an uneven playing field in this dispute - France, with its powerful economy and global clout, up against a small, cash-strapped Pacific Island country.

A former Vanuatu prime minister, Moana Carcasses, suggested in 2010 that the two uninhabited islands could become a condominium shared by Vanuatu and France.

His suggestion sparked outrage at the time among Vanuatu's political establishment whose stand on the dispute has essentially remained unchanged since independence.

Carcasses is in jail now for corruption-related charges. However his basic suggestion - that Vanuatu may have to show flexibility to reach resolution to this dispute - could still offer a possible circuit-breaker.

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