NOOSA – Two apparently unconnected events in Bougainville and its neighbouring and culturally related Solomon Islands have highlighted to a looming Australian dilemma in Bougainville.
If the autonomous Papua New Guinean province votes for independence in an October referendum, a decision requiring approval from the PNG parliament, how will Australia respond?
Earlier this month, as the Bougainville and PNG governments announced they had further refined the referendum choices for Bougainville’s political future, the Australian government announced a $250 million aid program for Solomon Islands.
In addition, Australia said it will provide $3 million in loans to Solomon’s workers who want to come to Australia under labour schemes as well as funding a new building for its prime minister's office and foreign affairs ministry.
The ABC commented that this “swift redesign of parts of the aid program [signalled] Australia's determination to reinforce its influence in the Pacific as strategic competition intensifies and China continues to pour resources into the region.”
It is worth noting that Solomon Islands is one of a shrinking number of countries that recognises Taiwan and not China and that this has been the subject of heated debate within the Solomons.
The United States has made it clear it would like Australia to urge the Solomons to retain the status quo and keep China on the outer.
It is against this background that the Bougainville people will decide on 15 October whether they want greater autonomy within PNG or total independence from it.
And the Bougainville and PNG governments have now refined the two options that will be on the voting paper.
The first option will be for "a negotiated political settlement that provides for a form of autonomy with greater powers than those currently available under constitutional arrangements".
The second option offers political independence, defined as an "independent nation state with sovereign powers and laws, recognised under international law and by other sovereign states to be an independent state, separate from the State of Papua New Guinea".
Bougainville’s president John Momis, who has been suffering from an undisclosed illness, for the second time in recent months has just left PNG for medical treatment.
Just before his departure he met with new prime minister James Marape to decide how the chosen option would be implemented.
There was no clarification of this crucial matter, one in which Australia will have great interest and over which it may seek to exercise influence.
Clearly Australia would prefer a Bougainville which remains as part of PNG. Not only would this make regional affairs easier to manage but it would discourage further movements towards autonomy by other regions of PNG.
But if Bougainvilleans vote for independence, as seems likely, and if the PNG parliament endorses that decision – which to avoid armed conflict it probably would – Australia is left with the challenge of keeping an independent Bougainville within Australia’s arc of influence.
Dr Momis – who spent many years as PNG’s ambassador to China - would be a key figure in bringing stability to this disrupted environment.
But he is ill – and just how unwell we don’t know.
So not for the first time, Australia faces a dilemma in Bougainville.
Let’s hope it is able to handle it better than it did during the tragic Bougainville civil war of the 1990s, when a peace agreement was reached as a result of New Zealand, not Australian, diplomacy.
And to close the loop on my discussion, might it be possible that Australia is scenario planning for an independent Bougainville to link up with its neighbouring Solomon Islands?