By Andrew Smith
With the current international focus on events in the East China Sea, it’s easy for the United States to overlook a long-running problem well to the South. Australia doesn’t have that luxury. The mineral-rich Autonomous Region of Bougainville, home of a nine-year war and an Australian-led peacekeeping operation since the late 1980s, is moving toward a referendum in a few years on independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG). Whether Bougainvilleans opt for independence or not, Australia has a key interest in shaping a good outcome for the islands—and so does the United States.
The trouble started in 1988 from local grievances over the operation of the rich Panguna copper and gold mine. The ensuing conflict closed the mine, killed 15,000 people, retarded development by years and caused a devastating hit to the PNG economy. PNG’s heavy-handed military management of the crisis has left a legacy of bitterness and distrust, which taints Australia because of its historically close relationship and business interests.
But Australia’s regional position has made it indispensable to the peace process. While all efforts to support peace in Bougainville are deliberately regional and multi-lateral, only Australia has the governmental, military and logistic weight to underwrite them—it led the regional peacekeeping effort from 1998 to 2003 and has contributed large sums in aid to Bougainville since 1997. Should the security situation deteriorate sufficiently, Australia would be on the hook to lead a peacekeeping intervention once more.
Bougainville has been part of a triumvirate of regional problems that Australia has been dealing with since 1999. Timor Leste and Solomon Islands have also required sustained Australian commitments that have only concluded in the last few years: at one time Australia and its partners were covering all three simultaneously. With concurrent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Australia’s resources were stretched thin. This illustrates a key principle in Australia’s regional security decisions: the closer a problem is to its shores, the less discretion an Australian government has about getting involved in solving it.
So Australia has a strong interest in lasting peace and prosperity in Bougainville, because they will obviate another expensive peacekeeping deployment and bring down the cost of Australian aid as the economy grows. The challenge: commercial and governmental pressure to resume mining is growing and there is a risk that mistakes of the past will be repeated, leading to another intervention. Given its interests—and its baggage—in the problem, Australia needs to pull off a very sophisticated piece of statecraft to achieve the outcome it needs.
Enter the United States. American interest in Bougainville shouldn’t be only passing. The United States and Australia share much history in Bougainville—over 700 Americans and 500 Australians died there in World War II and the United States is still working to clear unexploded ordnance left from that time. The recent troubles have even found their way into American courts, one of which recently rejected a class action suit brought by war victims against mining giant Rio Tinto. Further suits could follow.
Considering all this, recent messages about U.S. Asia Pacific policy may be leaving Australia feeling somewhat alone in handling problems of the Southwest Pacific. Pronouncements such as Susan Rice’s Georgetown address on November 20, 2013, seem to indicate a shift in U.S. interest more toward North Asia. The Southwest Pacific, never a strong focus of U.S. attention, is becoming even less so.
While strong support for its alliance with the United States is a long-standing and bipartisan feature of Australian security thinking, Australia may now confront a tension between its regional leadership responsibilities in the Southwest Pacific and its need to support an ally that is drawn increasingly towards North Asia. Coupled with doubts about whether the Obama administration can muster congressional support for key aspects of the pivot toward Asia, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there are grounds to question whether the alliance can actually deliver all that is hoped for.
Against this backdrop, U.S. assistance in Bougainville would be a timely and cost-effective contribution not only to stability in the Southwest Pacific, but also to its relationship with Australia. This can be done with distinctly American efforts that do not directly involve Australia, but that serve to improve the standing of westerners in Bougainvillian eyes. As a Melanesian society, trust and local relationships are key in Bougainville and things that connote long-term commitment and generosity, rather than short-term transactions, go a long way to building constructive relationships. Investing in training schemes, or encouraging American mining companies to do so; attending to the unexploded ordnance legacy; and diplomatic meetings with local leaders would be valuable and cost-effective ways to do this.
Of one thing there can be no doubt: if the situation in Bougainville deteriorates badly, Australia will be expected to lead another intervention. This will constrain its ability to support the United States further afield. Both Washington and Canberra should do everything they can to avoid that outcome.
Dr. Andrew Smith is a retired Australian Army Brigadier who now researches and writes independently on national and international security issues.