Pacific News Minute: Border Dispute Flares Between Vanuatu And France

Mar 26, 2019

Aerial view of Matthew Island
Credit Jd.girard / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

For years now, France and Vanuatu have been working to resolve a border dispute over two tiny uninhabited islands but what appeared to be quiet diplomacy has blown up over the last few weeks.

The issues between Paris and Port Vila include history, geography, cultural heritage, national pride, and fish. The Exclusive Economic Zone that extends around Hunter and Matthew Islands is bigger than the land area of New Zealand.  

History: France annexed the islands in 1926 as part of the New Hebrides, then transferred them to New Caledonia four years before the New Hebrides achieved independence as Vanuatu.

Geography: Matthew and Hunter lie about 190 miles from both Vanuatu and New Caledonia, but they’re on the western edge of the New Hebrides tectonic plate along with Vanuatu, while New Caledonia is on the eastern edge of the Australian plate.

Cultural Heritage: in ni-Vanuatu tradition, Matthew Island is the "House of The Gods," where the spirits of the dead go to rest. 

And national pride: In January, sailors landed from a French warship to polish a plaque claiming the islands for France. They painted the tri-color flag on a large rock and posted the proceedings on social media.

Outrage in Vanuatu led Prime Minister Charlot Salwai to send an angry letter to French President Emanuel Macron this week. Even so, he said that Vanuatu wants a friendly resolution. RNZ Pacific reports that senior officials at the overseas ministry in Paris are happy to let talks continue, but not willing to cede control in any way.