Iain Strutt has been involved in military, police and private security in Australia for over twenty years.  He is currently completing a Bachelor of Science (Security) degree with a minor in international relations at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organisation, or any group.  


National Security Situation:  Independence options for Bougainville Island, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Date Originally Written:  March 26, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  May 4, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  While Bougainville may be a small Pacific Island and seem minor geopolitically, the author believes the outcome of the independence vote in 2019 will have regional implications.

Background:  Bougainville Island will hold a referendum on independence from PNG on June 15th, 2019.  Independence from PNG has been deliberated and defeated before[1].  Historically, Bougainville was administered first by Germany, then Britain.  After World War 2, Australia administered the territory as part of the United Nations Trust Territory of New Guinea.  With PNG independence from Australia in 1975, Bougainville became part of the new nation[2].  Bougainville was originally known as the North Solomons’, being as they were, part of the Solomon Islands.

Secessionists caused an insurrection in Bougainville in 1988 and it continued until the late 1990s.  The conflict succeeded in closing the giant Panguna copper mine in 1989, situated in the southern highlands.  Panguna was vital to the economy of PNG and Bougainville, as it has copper in abundance.  The two most prominent causes for the guerilla war on Bougainville can be traced back to the longstanding imbalance between ethnicity and financial reward.  Inadequate sharing of revenue with the traditional landowners of the copper mine has since been settled, with their involvement in future mining now a reality[3].

Following the ending of the guerilla war, agreement was reached by the secessionists and the PNG government in 2001, seeing Bougainville declared an autonomous region, governed by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG).  Both the ABG and PNG signed the Bougainville Peace Agreement, known as the Arawa Accord in 2001 which has three related processes: 

  1. Autonomy
  2. Referendum
  3. Weapons disposal plan[4]

Two of the three have been accomplished, although it is not known precisely how many weapons were cached or even in existence before or after the December 2001 disposal process, so questions remain over weapons numbers[5].  Of concern is that the independence votes’ outcome hinges upon its ratification by the PNG parliament as the “final decision-making authority[6].”  The state as a person in international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter relations with the other states[7].  Bougainville satisfies all criteria despite efforts to resist the breakup by PNG.

This region has previously been of strategic interest to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) due to its resources[8].  Foreign powers attempt at influence is nothing new and it appears that the PRC is endeavoring to extend its influence past the so-called Second Island Chain.  The chain is a strategic line that stretches from Japan, to Guam, then to the “vicinity of New Guinea[9].”  Similarly, Australia has a profound strategic interest in South-East Asia, particularly PNG and the islands of the South Pacific[9].  Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) nations have fought wars and participated in peacekeeping missions in this area over the past 75 years and Bougainville lies within this region.

Financing the reopening of the Panguna mine is something that the PRC can afford, in keeping with its desire for infrastructure projects globally and commercial diplomacy[10].  To get the copper to market requires access from Panguna to Kieta port, with its adjacent airfield, on the east coast of Bougainville.  The strategic importance of Bougainville should therefore not be overlooked as the island is in a sound position to monitor the western Pacific.


Significance:  The recent visit to Australia by PRC Premier Li Keqinang has led to the increased warming of the bilateral relationship between the PRC and Australia.  Although Australia is still a firm ANZUS partner, U.S. foreign policy is now inward looking, prompting a refocus by the ANZUS partners.  Australian foreign policy can now act as a positive influence over the PRC in this region, with a “non-provocative, pragmatic diplomatic stance[11].”

Option #1:  Bougainville achieves independence in 2019 and ANZUS can assume defense duties in rotation on the island as there is no allowance for a defense force in the Bougainville constitution.

Risk:  Low.  This is the preferred outcome due to the minimal risk to regional stability.  It would give greater influence in the area to ANZUS nations.  The PNG military can benefit from cross training in keeping with Australia’s regional outlook.

Gain:  Positive.  Economic benefit for Bougainville.  The Panguna mine would reopen without PNG involvement with income provided to the local landowners.

Option #2:  The Bougainville referendum result is denied by the PNG government.  Bougainville declares sovereignty itself, following the examples of Bangladesh, Croatia, Georgia and Moldova (see Other Comments below).

Risk:  Moderate.  If PNG denies the result of the referendum to preserve its sovereignty over Bougainville, civil discontent is highly likely as Bougainville independence is preferred and has been over time.

Gain:  Negative.  An outcome regional partners would not want, due to the potential for violence and civil unrest.  Intervention requiring peacekeepers may occur, a situation the islanders have endured before.

Option #3:  Regardless of the result of the referendum, with closer relationships between Australia, the PRC and the ABG, a mining joint venture could commence at Panguna.  It is conceivable that this would involve the PRC as a partner in the joint venture with an Australian mining company.

Risk:  High.  Although PRC preference is for critical infrastructure projects globally, the risk would be high as there are elements within the ABG itself who have a definite preference not to deal with the PRC in any form.  Politically, this option would be impractical.

Gain:  Moderate.  Economically this would be of benefit to Bougainville for the life of the mine, which is expected to be twenty-five years.

Other Comments:  Bangladesh, Croatia, Georgia and Moldova, came to statehood in differing ways with one common denominator, at the time of their proclamation of independence there was no effective government in all four.  This differs from Bougainville, which has had effective governance for some time, elected officials, and its’ own administration separate from PNG.  Of the four nations mentioned above, Moldova is the most relative to Bougainville.  Moldova declared sovereignty on June 23, 1990, providing for the Moldovan constitution and laws to have primacy over those of the Soviet Union.  This was a proclamation of sovereignty and not independence but was a step towards it.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Jennings P. & Claxton K. (2013) A stitch in time. Preserving peace on Bougainville. Australian Strategic Policy Institute Limited.  p.3.

[2]  Jennings P. & Claxton K. (2013) A stitch in time. Preserving peace on Bougainville. Australian Strategic Policy Institute Limited.  p.15.

[3]  Bougainville Mining Act 2015. Autonomous Region of Bougainville (no.3 of 2015).

[4]  United Nations [UN] (2001) Bougainville Peace Agreement. Introduction and OutlineS/2001/988 Enclosure II Bougainville Peace Agreement.  23rd October 2001. p.8

[5]  Woodbury J. (2015) The Bougainville independence referendum: Assessing the risks and challenges before, during and after the referendum. Australian Defence College. Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies. p.9.

[6]  Woodbury J. (2015) The Bougainville independence referendum: Assessing the risks and challenges before, during and after the referendum. Australian Defence College. Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies.  P.7

[7]  Raic D. (2002) Statehood and the Law of Self-Determination. Brill Academic Publishers. p.406.

[8]  Hegarty M. (2015) Chinas growing influence in the South-West Pacific: Australian policies that could respond to Chinese intentions and objectives. Australian Defence College, Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies. p. 8

[9]  Holmes J.R. (2011) Island Chain Defence. The Diplomat. Retrieved 27th March 2017. http://thediplomat.com/2011/04/island-chain-defense/

[10]  Frost E.L. (2007) Chinas Rise and the Balance of Influence in Asia. Edited by William W. Keller and Thomas G. Rawsky. Ch. 5. Chinas’ Commercial Diplomacy in Asia. University of Pittsburg  Press. p.95.

[11]  Carr. B. (2017) Canberra’s sensible South China Sea Stand is contingent on continual pragmatism in Beijing. The Weekend Australian. March 18-19, 2017, p.24. News Ltd. Sydney.