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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 64. Bougainville, Papua New Guinea and the Battle for Melanesia

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The world's soon to be newest nation is stepping out onto the world stage, complicating the geopolitics of its region. A fractured Papua New Guinea worries Bougainville may start a trend of breakaway states, The Solomons worry about competing interests, China worries about others consolidating the Copper industry, and Australia is worried about betting on the wrong horse. How will the independence of Bougainville shake up the balance of power in Melanesia? We ask our panel of experts.



Tess Newton Cain

  • Program Leader of the Pacific Hub at Griffith University

  • Leading Policy Writer for the Pacific Nations

Bal Kama

  • Professor of International Law at the Australian National University

  • International Law specialist in Papua New Guinea.

  • Author of several fantastic publications about Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, and Melanesia

Michael Shoebridge

  • Director for Defence, Strategy, and National Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

  • Specialist in Australia's engagement strategy

  • Author of a number of great articles about the geopolitics of the Pacific and Melanesia


Part 1: From the Snow to the Jungle (2:23)

  • Tess Newton Cain guides us through the fundamentals of understanding Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, and the events that led to today. For Papua New Guinea, this includes Australia's historically close relationship with the country, with the two nations only being a few kilometres apart at their closest, as well as PNG's extremely complex and diverse domestic situation, and its challenging geography.

  • Turning to Bougainville we tackle the 10-year civil war that tore the region apart from 1988 to 1998, the cultural identity of Bougainvilleans, the autonomous nature of their government, and long, detailed journey to the recent independence referendum that was held as a requirement of the peace agreement.

  • We look around the region at the other players involved. From Indonesia and the Solomon Islands' roles in supporting each side, to New Zealand and Australia's involvement in the peace negotiation efforts, to members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group supporting Bougainville (in particular, Fiji and Vanuatu).

  • Looking to the future, when Bougainville does eventually achieve independence, there are big geopolitical questions to ask. First and foremost is who they will turn to for support. With Papua New Guinea continuing to stick largely within Australia's orbit, and the Solomon Islands' recent recanting of their recognition of Taiwan in favour of the CCP, to the Bougainville Public Investment Corporation's recent deal with South Korea, there is a good deal of competition at play, and Bougainville may be torn between the two.

  • More important than this for Bougainvilleans though is the huge amount of domestic work that needs to be done to be a successful independent nation. Human capital is seriously lacking, so for roles like teachers and doctors there is a lot of work being done to train people up to fill these roles, and Buka will look for which countries can help them most in this goal.


Part 2: Searching for Copper, and Finding Gold (27:22)

  • Bal Kama helps us understand the importance and nature of PNG's world-leading diversity, the challenges this posed for its former foreign rulers of Germany, Britain, and Australia, and the ongoing political consequences of that for Port Moresby. The decision to found the country on a decentralised governance system has worked in some ways, but has made issues like health, education, and infrastructure difficult because of the limited authority of the central government.

  • We look at the historical tensions between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, including the limits of their regional autonomy provided by the decentralised governance system, the revenues from Panguna Mine, one of the largest copper reserves in the world. We also look at whether the Bougainville independence process is likely to result in other PNG regions seeking a similar result.

  • Given the conflict between Papua New Guinean forces and Bougainvillean forces ended 24 years ago, we ask why it took so long for independence to come about. We look at the role that successive PNG governments have had in the ongoing peace and journey toward independence, and the division of opinion in PNG about whether to support Bougainville or not.


Part 3: Island Hopping (41:08)

  • Shoebridge takes us through how Australian foreign policy in the Pacific has evolved, from paternalism to partnership. The extensive involvement Canberra has in the "Pacific Family" is underestimated by many, where in fact they are a large diplomatic, security, and economic partner, both in terms of aid and investment. Indeed, some countries in the region have chosen to use the Australian dollar as their currency instead of a local one.

  • We look at why this is, from the impact of diaspora to the fundamental importance of geography - the United States has more capacity to provide but is much, much further away and has many competing interests. We also look at what Australia's involvement looks like specifically, from extensive scholarship programs, to security partnerships, to sporting and cultural connections.

  • Shoebridge analyses Australia's general foreign policy, including where it should focus, and whether Australia will be muscled out by China's economic strength. He highlights the fact that the actual capacity needed by many Pacific States is not infinite, and the amount of money itself is not always principal. Sometimes the nature of the investment, and how the money is used are far more important, and that provides opportunity for Australia to use its long history of partnership in the region to secure its ongoing role.

  • We examine the wider complications to the region, including China's increasing authoritarianism and violations of state sovereignty, Indonesia's growing role as a regional leader, the role of the QUAD, the consequences of Bougainville's strategic location, and the role of corruption across the Pacific.


The Red Line's Bougainville Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading should you be interested in delving deeper into the geopolitics of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, and Melanesia.


A Death in the Rainforest

Don Kulick

Bloody Bougainville

Chris Glatte

"Arc of Instability?" Melanesia in the Early 2000s

Matthias Emira


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Mark Golden, Matt Jones, and Gary Anderson.


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