Amkat Mai & the need for PNG support for West Papua
Life of uncertainty

Could China be the catalyst for an independent Bougainville?

Chinese warship leaves portThe Australian | Extracts

IF China’s constructions on reclaimed rocks in the South China Sea are a headache for ASEAN, the US and Australia, what if Beijing became the patron of a large emerging island state that stares across the Pacific to the US fortress of Guam?

Conditions have deteriorated on Bougainville, which after boasting the best living standards in Papua New Guinea before civil war broke out in 1989, is now one of PNG’s worst performing provinces, with few job prospects and poor health and education levels.

But there is another, strategically potent, reason why the United States might well wish to pay particular attention to Bougainville. That’s because within five years its 250,000 people will go to a referendum on independence and Bougainville, with deep water ports and lengthy runways that could be swiftly rehabilitated, lies 2,500km straight across the horizon from Guam.

PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill recently told The Australian a “yes” vote would not necessarily lead to independence, which remained the responsibility of the national parliament.

Nevertheless, the odds are strong on Bougainvilleans opting for independence. An independent but economically struggling Bougainville would be forced swiftly to seek patrons.

The Autonomous Bougainville Government, led by former priest John Momis, has repeatedly stated an economically viable future requires the return of mining.

Rio Tinto has demonstrated its lack of confidence in reopening Bougainville Copper Ltd - which would cost an estimated $6.5 billion - by instigating a review of its 53.6% stake, which has been underway for more than a year.

A ground-breaking ceremony, or bel kol (the cooling of anger), at which landowners, ABG, mine owners and other groups would bury the hatchet, has been postponed yet again due to the hostility of former combatants, some of whom retain their small arms.

It looks increasingly possible that Rio Tinto will walk away from the mine, which it was forced to close 26 years ago, despite it still containing copper, gold and other metals worth about $50bn and locals strongly backing its reopening at elections despite a hard core waving the threat of violence to keep it closed.

It could hand its shareholding to a trust for Bougainvilleans, as BHP did when it walked away from the environmental controversies at the Ok Tedi mine.

Or Rio could try to sell it, in which case the PNG government might be a buyer — or might nationalise it, as happened at Ok Tedi two years ago. The national government is already the second largest owner of BCL, with a 19.1% stake.

But nationalisation would be very hard to effect and counter-productive to the good relations needed for any chance of a referendum outcome supporting continued PNG sovereignty.

The bottom line is that only one source can provide the cash and the engineering required to resurrect the mine - the Chinese government. China is the only country to be expanding rapidly its aid — however tied — in the Asia-Pacific as part of President Xi Jinping’s maritime silk road vision.

Mr Momis, 75, a complex figure who has evinced strong nationalist feelings for PNG and Bougainville, has strong connections with Beijing, where he served as ambassador from 2006 to 2009.

Australia has worked to maintain strong links with Bougainville too, having played a major role, working alongside New Zealand, in the peace process and providing continuing aid.

But the relationship suffered some turbulence when Canberra announced in the May budget the opening of a consulate on Bougainville before it had been fully agreed by Port Moresby.

Whoever becomes Bougainville’s best friend, whether it remains part of PNG or seeks to strike out on its own, must have deep pockets.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute warned two years ago that “misunderstandings between Port Moresby and the ABG persist… The most likely referendum outcome — PNG refusing to ratify a clear but far from unanimous vote for an independence Bougainville is utterly unprepared for — would be destabilising”.

ASPI director Peter Jennings has added that the sharper maritime strategic competition emerging in the region made Pacific islands even more vulnerable to exploitation from powers eager to secure access for ships, aircraft and intelligence-gathering capabilities.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Paul Oates

History is unfortunately not on your side Chris. When the Solomons imploded and required RAMSI to help settle them down, the Chinese government reputedly paid for three large planeloads to evacuate their people 'on the ground'.

Bougainville may be an easier experiment. However, the inevitable conflict between cultures is probably the biggest hurdle. Melanesian culture, as we know, does not generally accept an Asian way of doing things. So called 'leaders' can be bought and elections can be won with 'gris moni' but in the long run, it's what the people want that will make the difference.

Chris Overland

The fate of Bougainville remains in the balance.

People like Leonard Fong Roka foresee a future as an independent nation, based upon traditional values and with Bougainvilleans very much in charge.

I very much doubt that Peter O'Neill and his colleagues see things this way.

This will be especially so if someone with very deep pockets is willing to substantially fund a cash strapped Bougainvillean government in return for access to the island's mineral wealth or, perhaps, in exchange for long term access to a Naval Base and major Military Airport.

Make no mistake, the Chinese government would dearly love to be able to extend its influence into the wider Pacific.

They are already seeking to extend their physical and naval presence within what they see their legitimate geographic "sphere of influence" in the South China Sea.

Armed with huge cash reserves, they have both the will and capacity to exert both "soft" and "hard" power to achieve this and, if so inclined, even further into the Pacific, which has for so long been dominated by the US fleet.

These developments are, rightly, unsettling the USA and its allies.

The USA has exerted hegemonic power in the Pacific since 1945 and will not willingly relinquish its influence or power in the region.

PNG, like Australia, will find its interests best served by maintaining the status quo.

For all its faults, the USA remains a bastion of democracy while China remains a one party autocratic state.

The history of autocratic regimes is not encouraging for those who seek a life of peace and tranquility.

So, to Bougainvilleans I say, beware the Chinese dragon, lest you be burnt!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)