Nearly two decades after a peace agreement marked the official end to a bloody civil war, residents of the island region of Bougainville will begin voting this weekend on whether it should become the world's newest country and separate from Papua New Guinea. The vote in a small South Pacific territory of just 250,000 people is stirring the interest of larger global powers, including China, Australia and the United States.
Beginning on Nov. 23, Bougainville voters will be asked if they want greater autonomy from Papua New Guinea or independence for their autonomous archipelago, which lies on the eastern side of Papua New Guinea. The referendum, which will last for two weeks, was promised in 2001 in a peace agreement after a 1988-1997 civil war.
It's an important moment in Bougainville's history, experts say, because the government in Papua New Guinea has been incapable of delivering needed infrastructure, education reforms and social safety net investments in areas outside of the capital city of Port Moresby.
"For a place like Bougainville, which is far from the center, there is a sense that it will never secure the development that it needs for its own people if it's reliant on the central government needing to do that," says Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow in the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Bougainville is the only province of Papua New Guinea that has been autonomous since 2005. It has a separate constitution and can establish its own institutions, organize elections for government, make its own laws, and establish its own courts, public services and police. The autonomous status "... aims to give expression and development to Bougainvillean identity and (empower) Bougainvilleans to solve their own problems," the government says.
In August, the referendum was officially announced, stirring geopolitical concerns in an area that has historically been dominated by Western powers, including the United States, Australia and France.
Now, China is very interested in the region, Poling says.
"There are strategic implications for any island in the Pacific," he says. "If you want to operate a blue-water navy in the region, you need bases or at least some (points) where you can pull in, resupply and replenish (in order to) patrol and operate sustainably."
China lacks a presence in the South Pacific, although it is establishing bases in the Indian Ocean and asserting control in the East China Sea, Yellow China Sea and South China Sea, all while expanding its naval fleet. But there is little any nation can do to stop Beijing from expanding into blue waters, Poling adds, with other world powers now needing to focus on limiting its access to permanent naval bases.
"And that's what the Australians are going to try to prevent," Poling says. "If Bougainville eventually does become independent, (countries with interests in the region) are going to watch very carefully for any signs that the Chinese are trying to leverage potential investment projects in a way that gives them a permanent base (in the new nation)."
Results of the referendum are expected to be announced in mid-December. The referendum is nonbinding, and a vote for independence would lead to negotiations between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea leaders before the issue would head to lawmakers in the Papua New Guinea Parliament.
The process of establishing a new status for the region will take up to a year.
Sintia Radu is an international affairs and global technology reporter at U.S. News & World Report. She previously reported on business and technology for the Washington Post and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She served as the managing editor for Esquire Romania. She graduated from the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies, and earned her Master of Arts in Journalism at the University of Missouri. She is a fellow of the National Press Foundation for a program on the impact of artificial intelligence. She was part of the 2016 Women in STEM cohort at Chicago's 1871 technology and entrepreneurship center, and helped design a multiple award-winning iOS/watchOS app profiled in the 2017 Associated Press report on The Future of Augmented Journalism. She is a Fulbright scholarship recipient and gave a TEDx talk on immigration and diversity. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, or email her at email@example.com.