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Fears Bougainville independence will open Pacific door for China

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne will visit Bougainville today amid fears an upcoming independence vote there could undermine regional stability and provide an opening for China to establish a strategic foothold in what could become the Pacific’s newest nation state.

The visit is the first by an Australian minister since a bungled 2015 attempt to open an Australian consulate led the PNG government to slap a ban on Australian officials travelling to the autonomous region.

Papua New Guinea, which fought a decade-long civil war with Bougainville rebels ending in the late 90s, is trying to convince Bougainvilleans to remain an autonomous PNG province.

PNG Minister for Bougainville Affairs, Sir Puka Temu, said Bougainville’s people needed to understand what “cutting the umbilical cord from Papua New Guinea” would mean.

“The revenue for Bougainville is only K 20 million (AUD$8.6m) per year,” Sir Puka said.

“They will need, according to international studies, at least K900 million (AUD$390m) a year to rebuild Bougainville as an independent state.” He said independence would also mean “Papua New Guinea will not be able to be politically responsible for an independent Bougainville state”.

Bougainville’s people will vote on October 17 to either become an independent state or to have greater autonomy within PNG.

There is a widespread expectation that Bougainvilleans will vote in favour of independence in a result that would then have to be ratified by the PNG parliament, where it could face opposition from MPs who fear other provinces could follow.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape has said PNG was “stronger with Bougainville than without” but it would listen to the people of Bougainville “and then consult on options for the future”.

Lowy Institute Pacific programme director Jonathan Pryke said the referendum outcome would have strategic implications “thanks to the active presence of China throughout PNG and the broader Pacific”. “Given the new strategic landscape, and not to mention the huge reserves left in Panguna (copper) mine, I would expect an independent Bougainville would have a number of potential international suitors to help them with their financial challenges,” Pryke said.

Senator Payne was in Port Moresby Tuesday for meetings with members of Marape’s government, amid friction over the likely renewal of a $20 million (US$14 million) a month Manus Island security contract for Paladin Solutions.

PNG Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas has called for Paladin’s contract to be terminated at its June 30 expiry, but Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton indicated this week it would be extended. Paladin said a case involving four guards from subsidiary firm Black Swan International who allegedly shot into a crowd, injuring four people, was “considered closed” by police.

Paladin said it had an “outstanding track record as an ethical provider of security, safety, risk management, community engagement and garrison ­services”.

Dutton’s office has refused to release an Ernst & Young report on the awarding of the contracts to Paladin to provide security services on Manus Island.

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