Bougainville is likely to vote for independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG) in a referendum that is scheduled to begin next month, creating a new source of regional uncertainty that could be exploited by countries like China and Indonesia.

Surveys of voting intentions suggest as many as 80% of the Pacific island’s 300,000 inhabitants will support self-determination at the referendum, which will be held for two weeks from November 23 and is expected to draw a curtain on more than a century of colonial rule, variously by Germany, Australia and PNG.

To be sure, independence for Bougainville is not a fait accompli. One big swing factor is that the result will have to be ratified by PNG, which is in no hurry to relinquish what is currently a province rich in mineral wealth.

PNG’s government also knows that whatever the referendum’s outcome, there is a risk the island could become a new hotbed of instability on its strategic eastern border.

“If the people of Bougainville vote for independence and are unable to reach agreement with the government of Papua New Guinea, the Bougainville issue may precipitate another regional crisis,” warned analyst Ben Bohane, author of a study by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

Bougainville Revolutionary Army overlook the Paguna mine in a file photo. Photo: Facebook
Bougainville Revolutionary Army soldiers overlook the Paguna mine in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

That scenario could include a revival of the 1988 breakaway movement that drew the island into a decade of violence over the Panguna copper mine, tribal disputes and grievances with PNG which conspired to kill over 15,000 people. Australia and New Zealand sent in troops and negotiated a peace accord.

The resulting 2001 agreement provided for the creation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (which has only limited self-reliance), the disarmament of an insurgent group and a referendum that would ask the population whether they wanted “greater autonomy” or “independence.”

China, other provinces watching

PNG was allowed to dictate the referendum’s terms to break a stalemate in the peace talks, but it has the most to lose even if there is a “no” vote, as it will still need to negotiate greater autonomy for Bougainville to prevent a recurrence of the unrest.

Worryingly for PNG, more of its provinces will be closely watching. East New Britain and New Ireland, islands just to the west of Bougainville, and Enga in the Western Highlands, are also pushing for more autonomy. If Bougainville gets the nod, they will likely expect similar treatment.

Australia and its Western allies will also be watching the events closely, as they cannot afford to have PNG weakened politically or economically by autonomy pressures. The country of seven million is being courted with offers of aid by the US and Australia, which plan to upgrade a naval base on Manus Island as a bulwark against Chinese expansion in the Pacific.

They are also alarmed that China might try to buy the allegiance of an independent but impoverished Bougainville, which will remain reliant on outside financial support while it tries to rebuild a stalled mining sector.

Bohane wrote in the Lowy Institute report that “China has looked at Bougainville with some interest” and may try to capitalize on the situation. “I would think that Australia would be aware of that and that may feed into some of Canberra’s calculations in terms of how to respond,” Bohane wrote.

Australia has said it will accept the outcome of the referendum, but is worried Bougainville might follow the nearby Solomon Islands in aligning with China.

Solomons’ deals with Beijing

The Solomons, which have close ethnic and cultural roots with the Bougainvilleans, switched allegiance from Taiwan to China last month and on October 10 signed several economic and education deals with Beijing.

“I am pleased to recognize the One China policy … We are pleased to be on the right side of history and normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China,” Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said in Beijing.

The deal includes unspecified involvement in China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.

Kiribati also severed its relations with Taiwan in the same month, leaving Nauru, Tuvalu, Palau and the Marshall Islands as the only Pacific islands still outside China’s embrace, from a total of 15 countries worldwide that recognize Taipei over Beijing.

There is speculation that China will try to re-establish a satellite tracking station at Tarawa, the Kiribati capital, which was dismantled after the nation sided with Taiwan in 2003. It would likely have military capabilities if re-built.

Concern in Jakarta

Indonesia will be another key player in the Bougainville saga, as it has almost as much to lose from a pro-independence vote as PNG.

A Papuan student with a painted face attends during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 22, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Andrew Gal

The Jakarta government is known to be concerned that the autonomy push could lead to similar demands in restive West Papua, which is currently wracked by violence sparked by racism claims against minority Papuans.

Riots in the Papuan city of Wamena late last month are believed to have killed as many as 33 pro-independence activists and forced more than 16,000 people from their homes.

There are unconfirmed reports that Indonesia is lobbying for a “no” vote in Bougainville, but like PNG, it is likely staring at disappointment.