Sydney (AFP) – Emmanuel Macron arrived in Australia Tuesday on a rare visit by a French president with the two sides expected to agree on greater cooperation in the Pacific to counter a rising China.
Fresh from meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington, Macron touched down for the first foray Down Under by a French leader since Francois Hollande came to Brisbane for a G20 summit four years ago.
His advisers said he wanted to discuss a “common response” to security and climate tensions in the South Pacific, which includes the French territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
Cuisine and defence will be on the agenda during the two-day visit.
France’s ambassador to Australia Christophe Penot said Paris saw Canberra as a “pivot” for his country’s broader involvement in the Indo-Pacific.
“What the president will tell your prime minister is that we are ready and willing to do much more with Australia in the South Pacific,” he told the Australian Financial Review Tuesday.
“We must support the South Pacific islands in their development and give them options when they want to develop infrastructure.
“That doesn’t mean we want to oppose China on that. It is just that we want to be complementary and make sure they have all the options on the table.”
Australia has become increasingly alarmed at China’s push into the Pacific, which could potentially upset the delicate strategic balance in the region.
A senior Australian minister recently called Chinese infrastructure projects in the Pacific “white elephants” while reports last month, that were denied, said Beijing wanted to establish a permanent military base in Vanuatu.
Australia’s Lowy Institute estimates China provided US$1.78 billion in aid, including concessional loans, to Pacific nations between 2006-16.
Macron will also be keen to talk defence and trade, building on a mega Aus$50 billion (US$37 billion, 31 billion euros) deal agreed in late 2016 for France to supply Australia’s new fleet of next-generation submarines.
The May 1-3 trip comes hot on the heels of his pomp-filled visit to Washington and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s journey to Normandy for World War I Anzac Day commemorations last month.
It will have a strong cultural flavour with France’s 40-year-old leader discussing food Wednesday at a lunch with Australian and French chefs.
As often on his foreign trips, Macron will also meet local artists, specifically Aboriginal artists whose work deals with the climate change — a subject on which Macron, custodian of the 2015 Paris Agreement, has taken a leadership role.
Following the Australia visit, the French leader will continue on to the French territory of New Caledonia, where a crucial independence referendum is due in November.