Papua New Guinean instability in the news this week
Although under-reported in mainstream media there was lots of important activity in and around Papua New Guinea this week. Activity that could have implications for Sino-American competition in the Pacific. Starting in Bougainville a large island situated between Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. Approximately 15,000 people died during a bitter war for independence from Papua New Guinea fought on the island between 1988 and 1998. The war stopped after New Zealand brokered a peace settlement. The settlement included increased autonomy for the island and was guaranteed by a New Zealand-Australian peace monitoring team.
Later, in 2001 a peace agreement was signed that agreed a referendum on Bougainville’s independence would be held. In 2019, a referendum was held that unanimously supported Bougainville separating from Papua New Guinea.
Currently, the Papua New Guinean government is planning a vote to respond to the referendum and decide whether it will support Bougainville’s independence. This debate jumped back into the media last week when Papua New Guinea changed the majority required for a decision from a ‘simple majority;’ or more that 50% of votes in their parliament to an ‘absolute majority’ or 66% of votes. This unilateral change caused Bougainville’s representatives a great deal of concern. Ezekiel Massat, Bougainville’s Minister of Independence Mission Implementation expressing his concern that the Papua New Guinean National Executive Council had not discussed the change with representatives from Bougainville before recommending this change to parliament.
James Marape, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea has always been cautious about allowing Bougainville to ‘break away,’ concerned that its secession could lead to other province’s wanting independence. And; at the same time, on the other side of Papua New Guinea there were discussions this week about West Papua, the Indonesian controlled half of the island.
West Papua’s ongoing war for independence, like Bougainville’s war, is a little known but bloody piece of Pacific history. Unfortunately, both territories independence struggles tend not to be well-covered in mainstream media so are little known outside the local area. Last week, representatives from Vanuatu travelled to Jakarta to meet Indonesian officials and amongst other matters discussed West Papuan independence. Vanuatu is a strong supporter of West Papuan independence.
Historically, Bougainville and West Papua are rich in minerals so their parent nations have opposed independence. Papua New Guinea fighting unsuccessfully for a decade to secure Bougainville; and Indonesia fighting a long war of attrition with West Papuan nationalists. Both wars causing great human suffering.
Further, this week it is reported that ten people were killed in Papua New Guinea during an inter-tribal fight in Enga province. An incident that saw deployment of police and military resources to quell tensions. Although not unusual, this incident highlights the general instability of Papua New Guinea. A large and poorly resourced country, in which the institutions of government are sometimes not strong.
With regards to the current geo-political situation this activity points to several risk factors. The United States is building a relationship with Papua New Guinea as a counter to Chinese influence in the Solomon Islands. This means that money and resources will be flowing into a relatively small nation with weak government institutions and a range of issues it needs to deal with like; Bougainville, or the impact of the war being fought in West Papua along the 700km jungle and mountain border that separates the Papuan New Guinea and Indonesia halves if the island.
Sino-American competition means that America and its allies will feed money into Papua New Guinea, and China will continue to compete for influence feeding its own money into the nation. A tough situation for any nation let alone a relatively unstable one to manage.
This situation is dangerous for stability in the South-West Pacific, the social and political impact of larger powers competing for influence in Papua New Guinea are significant. The inherent instability demonstrated of the nation combined with a range of current and potential independence movements provides fertile ground for larger nations to try and use propaganda, lobbying and economic pressure to achieve their goals.
Tension in New Caledonia
The indigenous Kanak people of France’s colony, New Caledonia have a long history of wanting independence with tensions escalating to violence during the late-1970s and 80s. In 2021, a contentious referendum on independence was held. Pro-independence groups boycotted the referendum, and unsurprisingly the result of the vote was that 98% of people wanted to remain part of France.
This week Kanak representatives spoke to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization repudiating the 2021 referendum and discussing a range of indigenous rights concerns in New Caledonia.
The colony is a well-garrisoned French outpost in the Pacific, providing a base for French aircraft, naval ships and soldiers. The French commitment to New Caledonia contributes to America’s alliance of nations in the Pacific. French forces regularly exercising with Australian and American forces and the island itself is an important base securing the eastern end of the arc of islands above Australia. New Caledonia is a good base for operations in the South-West Pacific.
New Caledonia’s strategic location means that France is likely to do everything possible to maintain its presence, reducing the likelihood of independence. This situation will not change and the possibility of more tension in New Caledonia’s future cannot be ruled out.
Papua New Guinea and Australia trade deal
Like the United States, Australia is on a diplomatic offensive in the Pacific. Especially in Papua New Guinea, a vital area now that Chinese influence in the Solomon Islands has increased. Australia’s diplomatic offensive in Papua New Guinea has two key pillars; a defence agreement that has currently stalled and potential trade deals. The most important of which is the opportunity to enter into a free trade agreement between the two nations.
Australia is working hard offering a range of technical support to bolster Papua New Guinea’s agricultural sector. Specifically, help to develop a national bio-security regime that is compliant with international standards allowing the nation to trade more profitably.
However, Papua New Guinea has always had a strained relationship with its larger neighbour and last week Richard Maru, Papua New Guinea’s trade minister would have caused considerable concern in Canberra when he commented on the unfairness of the trade relationship. Essentially, that for many years Australian companies happily extracted Papua New Guinea’s minerals but the nation does not allow their agricultural imports into the country. A situation that creates a trade imbalance, very much in Australia’s favour.
Maru also discussed Papua New Guinea focussing on its trade relationship with China. A country also discussing a free trade agreement with Papua New Guinea.
This is an interesting situation because it appears that Papua New Guinea understands its new strategic importance to Australia and is keen to extract benefit from it. By playing to Australian fears by slowing down the defence agreement and highlighting the unfair trade relationship, Papua New Guinea stands to benefit.
It is an early example of how power relationships in the Pacific are evolving because of Sino-American competition. Papua New Guinea may have difficulty maintaining the rule or law, is managing secessionist movements in Bougainville and needs to keep an eye on West Papua but now has enormous influence with the United States and Australia as these nations seek to shut China out of the South-West Pacific.
This is activity that we will see spread across the South-West Pacific as small nations suddenly become important to the United States and its allies; and therefore, able to negotiate more aggressively. This trend may be very positive forcing larger nations to provide much needed investment and technical knowledge into the region stimulating economies and creating wealth. Or; it could be de-stabilising as larger nations lose trust in smaller nations and start to act more aggressively to achieve their strategic objectives.
Hopefully, the support provided by the Pacific Islands Forum and other regional networks helps to support a constructive and well-governed dialogue that favours a positive outcome.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger