US Edges China Out of Race to Fund Bougainville Independence Vote

SYDNEY—The United States and its Pacific allies have plugged a funding gap that endangered next months independence referendum in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) region of Bougainville, a strategic move that also sidelined China, two sources told Reuters.

Western nations are looking to rein in Chinas influence in the increasingly contested Pacific, where it has recently drawn away two of Taiwans allies, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, triggering a strong rebuke from the United States.

The vote in PNGs autonomous region of Bougainville, formerly the site of a bloody civil conflict, will run from Nov. 23 to Dec. 7, and could trigger separation negotiations to create a new nation in the strategic waters of the Pacific.

Two sources with direct knowledge of the arrangements in Bougainville told Reuters that China was not blocked from helping fund the referendum, but neither was it invited to contribute when the shortfall emerged.

“Its just that the invitation never arrived, or, rather, was never sent,” one source said.

The second source said the West wanted to limit Chinas engagement with what could soon be the worlds newest nation, strategically located in waters separating Asia and the Americas.

Chinas Foreign Ministry declined to comment on whether it was involved in discussions to assist in the referendum.

“China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and respects the independent choices of people in all countries,” it said in a statement.

The funding shortfall emerged early this year amid preparations, overseen by former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, to register the votes of 300,000 people, most of them spread over the main island of Bougainville, nearby Buka and other outlying islands.

The United States, along with Australia, New Zealand and Japan, helped plug the funding gap of 7.1 million kina ($2 million), according to a breakdown of funding arrangements provided to Reuters by the Bougainville Referendum Commission.

PNG is the biggest contributor to the referendum, setting aside 18.7 million kina ($5.4 million). The commission did not respond to questions why China, a major financier to PNG and the region, did not contribute.

Bougainville was regarded as a strategic location during World War Two, hosting several naval aircraft bases of the occupying imperial Japanese army.

Its referendum is part of a peace process negotiated at the end of a decade-long conflict in 1998 largely focused on how to allocate profit from the now shuttered Panguna gold and copper mine, then run by a forerunner of Rio TiRead More – Source