SYDNEY — A small island has found itself caught in the escalating battle for influence in the South Pacific. On both economic and diplomatic fronts, Papua New Guinea’s autonomous region of Bougainville has become a key piece in the game between Beijing, on one side, and the U.S. and its allies on the other.
With Bougainville holding one of the world’s largest untapped deposits of copper, Chinese and Western companies are weighing the prospects for reopening its Panguna copper mine — closed since a vicious civil war broke out in 1989. The island is also set to hold an independence referendum on June 15, potentially creating a new country that could vote in international forums such as the United Nations.
John Momis, president of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, told the Nikkei Asian Review that Chinese businesspeople raised the matter of investing in the mine on a visit to PNG ahead of last month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in the capital, Port Moresby.
Momis said he told them that, “Panguna is not an easy issue, and as far as ABG’s concerned we have decided to put it on the back burner until the referendum.” The peace agreement signed by the PNG government and island leaders in 2001 created the ABG and set the stage for the referendum. Chinese involvement with the mine would give Beijing a direct role in the economic future of a newly independent nation as it seeks to secure resources and expand its strategic network. It would also boost China’s sway in its power game against the U.S. and regional rivals such as Australia.
But given its potential resources, the government in Port Moresby would be loath to lose the island, especially the Panguna mine. And while the referendum is not binding, blocking a secession backed by most of the local population might be a recipe for renewed unrest in the volatile country.
For the rest of this article: https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Asia-Insight/A-small-island-gets-caught-in-China-s-Pacific-power-game-with-West