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Will B'ville be a China-US battleground?

| Washington Post | Extract

Bougainville Fighters
Bougainvillean guerilla fighters of the 1990s civil war. Thirty years later the Toroama government faces challenges of equal enormity

ARAWA— On a warm morning in November, a barrel-chested and battle-scarred man arrived to Capitol Hill in Washington USA for a meeting he hoped would help save his struggling homeland.

Ishmael Toroama was introduced to two members of the US House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party as the president of Bougainville. But his previous occupation was evident in the arm that hung limply at his left side as he shook the lawmakers’ hands.

Twice he’d nearly died while leading the fight for Bougainville’s independence in the 1990s. Now he had come to Washington to try to finish the job.

The man in a pinstripe suit who introduced Toroama was no revolutionary, however. His name was John D Kuhns, a Wall Street investment banker turned novelist and entrepreneur who had made Bougainville his last big bet.

Together, the two men had a story to tell: of a would-be nation in a strategic location starving for freedom, and of a long-shuttered mine still containing as much as $100 billion (K380 billion) in copper and gold that could be used in the world’s energy transition — an energy transition where China, with its insatiable thirst for natural resources, is at the forefront.

Toroama had set a 2027 deadline for full independence from Papua New Guinea, after a 2019 referendum in which nearly 98% of the population voted in favour.

But the result remains subject to ratification by the national parliament in Port Moresby, and talks between the two sides have broken down.

Bougainville could fund its freedom by reopening the Panguna mine and become a staunch US ally, Toroama told Representatives Mike Gallagher (Republican, Wisconsion) and Neal Dunn (Republican, Florida) in November, according to Toroama and Kuhns’s account of the meeting. Committee staff confirmed the meeting happened. (Gallagher left Congress last month.)

Toroama said he told them he needed their help. He had come to Washington to play “the US card,” he said. But some rivals were backed by Beijing, he warned, and even Toroama might have to turn to China if the United States wouldn’t assist.

Kuhns, who wants a piece of Panguna and said he paid for Toroama’s trip, was more explicit.

“Bougainville’s vulnerable status and valuable Panguna mine have not escaped the attention of the Chinese Communist Party,” he wrote in a brief circulated beforehand.

“China has already taken steps to control the Solomon Islands and is intent on doing the same across the South Pacific. Unless Ishmael Toroama and his supporters can resist, Bougainville could be next.”

It was an ominous warning, delivered to US lawmakers already alarmed by Beijing.

As tensions between China and the US escalate in the Asia-Pacific region, where both countries have recently struck security agreements, everyone from diplomats to dealmakers has learned that those tensions can be turned to their advantage.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, visiting Port Moresby last month, dangled a free-trade agreement, telling Papua New Guinean prime minister James Marape that “China will be your most reliable partner”....

In Bougainville, where foreigners’ get-rich schemes grow as thick as the jungle, some are suspicious of Kuhns.

The American’s latest novel, his fourth, portrays himself as the only reliable outsider in Bougainville and Toroama as its only hope for independence, with time running out.

In reality, there have been disagreements between them, especially over the mine, and Kuhns readily blends fact and fiction. “I’m not interested in accuracy, per se,” he said of his novels. “I’m just trying to tell the story.”

Link here to Michael E Miller's excellent account of the Kuhns-Toroama relationship as it plays out against the backdrop of the continuing complexities of Bougainville's journey to independence



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