Ninety-eight per cent of Bougainvilleans voted for independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG) earlier this month in an overwhelmingly clear sign of the separate identity they have long maintained. Not so clear, however, is the path forward.
Bougainville has been a part of PNG since 1976 following failed attempts to gain recognition from the United Nations as an independent nation and an attempt to unite with the Solomon Islands.
The outcome of the referendum, while so far only symbolic, sets in motion a lengthy consultation between the island’s autonomous administration and national authorities, with the ultimate vote on independence to come from PNG’s parliament.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape said his government had heard the voice of Bougainvilleans, and that “the two governments must now develop a road map that leads to lasting political settlement.”
Behind the scenes, however, China had already begun enticing the could-be world’s newest nation into becoming an important ally.
General Sam Kaouna, a leading contender for the leadership of Bougainville, told Channel Nine that he would seek a relationship with China if Australia doesn’t put up a better offer.
“Bougainville is going to be open to both Australia and China,” he said. “We are ready to start a new nation and we need their money… We have the resources, but we need their money.”
Kaouna went on to criticize Australia’s engagement in the region, saying it shows “no respect to the people,” while praising China for “bringing gifts.”
Kaouna’s relationship with the Australian government is a personal one. Earlier this year, he was denied a visa to visit Australia to meet with Andrew “Twiggy” Forest to discuss his company’s interest in the Panguna Mine in Bougainville.
“Australia is making an enemy out of Sam,” he said. “Australia is making an enemy out of Bougainville when they give me that treatment.”
Ahead of the referendum, rumors emerged that a Chinese delegation had offered $1 billion to fund the transition to independence along with offers to invest in mining, tourism, and agriculture.
Around the same time, Kauona hosted an event for ward councillors and MPs where he was filmed by Channel Nine unfurling a large map of Bougainville with Chinese script highlighting proposed bridges, highways, ports, airports, and luxury hotels.
“This is the first holistic offer, which has come from China,” he said. “Where is Australia and the U.S. and Japan?
In Bougainville, if it comes down to winning hearts and minds, Australia’s past may also come back to haunt it.
In 1988, Bougainville descended into a decade-long civil war, with armed groups from across the region taking up arms against the government and against each other. It’s estimated that as many as 20,000 lives were lost.
The war broke out in part due to the handling of the Panguna mine, which at the time was owned by Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. The company has since been accused of aiding the PNG military in its invasion of the island, which resulted in entire villages being burned down, executions and rape.
In a class action lawsuit against the company, lawyers claimed the mine’s manager at the time “encouraged the continuation of the blockade for the purposes of starving the bastards out.”
Australia’s “Pacific step-up” would see it counter China’s growing influence in the region, but China’s trade, investment, and aid has grown at the same time as Australia’s position on climate change has eroded the trust of Pacific island governments.
In the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade document outlining Australia’s “step-up” in the Pacific, “climate change and responding to natural disasters” is listed as one of four significant long-term challenges, but at the Pacific Islands Forum in August of this year, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison attended ready to defend Australia’s reliance on coal.
Morrison was accused of watering down the communique which focused heavily on climate change and the need for emissions reductions, despite pleas from Pacific leaders such as Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopaga who told Morrison: “You are trying to save your economy. I am trying to save my people.”
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi said at the time that Pacific Island nations won’t line up with Australia against China. “If countries against China object to Beijing’s support for the region they should come in and provide the assistance that China is providing,” he said.
While China is now the South Pacific’s second-largest trading partner and second-largest aid donor, its $1.6 billion expenditure on the region between 2011 and 2017 was dwarfed by that of Australia’s $8.7 billion over the same period.
The difference, however, is in China’s willingness to fund projects that Australia does not.
Australia responded with a swift redesign of parts of the aid program, which was enacted just days after Morrison won the prime ministership and was on an overseas visit to the Solomon Islands where he pledged $250 million for infrastructure.
The prime minister told a gathering in Honiara that his decision to come to the Solomons sent “a very clear message.”
“This is to reaffirm our commitment to the Pacific Step Up program, to our Pacific family,” he said.
The trip was seen largely as a last-ditch attempt to persuade the Solomons to maintain an alliance with Taiwan, an Australian ally, over China.
But despite Australia’s willingness to bend to reactive demands of geopolitics, the Solomons, as well as Kiribati, went ahead and dramatically cut ties with Taiwan in favor of strengthening relations with China — angering Australian and U.S.officials.
In Bougainville, Australia appears to be playing it calm, but if there are any lessons to be learned from China’s recent ventures in the South Pacific, it’s that Pacific leaders are looking for immediate and concentrated leadership and will not wait for Australia to make a better offer.