Following the Solomon Islands deal with the People's Republic of China (PRC) to allow PRC military bases, military personnel, and security personnel into the Solomon Islands, worry has turned toward the largely Catholic North Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG), part of the Solomon Islands archipelago, that is expected to become a sovereign state (independent county) in 2027.
The new "axis of evil" appears to be an alliance of all of the world's nations who do not follow international law including PR China, IR Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Syria, in addition to those that are friends with these nations such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua to name a few. But, what is notable here, is that three of these nations are very Catholic. Furthermore, one of these nations portrays itself as very environmentally conscious. And North Bougainville fits into both of these last two categories!
North Bougainville's Colonial Origins, Declared Independence, and Papua New Guinea Response:
North Bougainville was originally part of German New Guinea until the Australians (then part of the UK) took it over in World War 1 and put it with Papua New Guinea. It was the Germans who made the area mostly Catholic, via a Marist mission. The Japanese then took it over during World War 2, only for it to return to the Australians under Papua New Guinea. This lasted until North Bougainville declared its independence as the Republic of the North Solomons in 1975, right before Papua New Guinea was to become independent.
This declaration of independence did not develop, however, as the Papua New Guinea security forces quickly shut this down, and North Bougainville would become once again part of Papua New Guinea, this time as part of the new independent Papua New Guinea. Almost immediately after this, the large copper, gold, and silver mine on Bougainville Island, at Panguna, became a splintering topic. This mine would be owned by Australian-British company Rio Tinto, and operated by its PNG-Australian subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL).
Due to concerns over the environment, plus overall anger of not receiving enough of the profits from the mine, the Bougainville secessionist movement shot off!
The Panguna Mine and Revolution:
The mine provided around 44 percent of PNG's experts, while also accounting for 17 percent of PNG's internal revenue and 12 percent of PNG gross domestic product. This made North Bougainville the second wealthiest province in PNG, and BCL invested heavily into the infrastructure, small businesses, and the overall community. But, the environmental issues were still there, and furthermore, the anger of 62 percent of revenues going to the PNG government, but only 16 percent of the mine's revenue going to both North Bougainville's provincial government and the Bougainvilleans who were Panguna landowners became too much (However, some reports say only 20 percent went to the PNG Government while only 5 percent went to the North Bougainville Government and 5 percent went to the Panguna landowners). And these were the official reports! According to the Bougainvilleans themselves, BCL only gave back 1 percent of its revenue from the Panguna mine, despite this mine being one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world, and paid the workers low wages, all while damaging the Kawerong-Jaba River system and the surrounding ocean. Even though Bougainvilleans were learning new trades and making more money, they did not find it as a fair deal and they further did not think it was worth damaging their environment anymore.
By 1988, tensions had grown to a Civil War between North Bougainville and PNG, as local landowners formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and shut down the Panguna mine, as BCL refused to listen to the North Bougainville citizens' demands. And, thus, the PNG security forces went in to restore order and open the mine.
But, back to North Bougainville who has yet to find the same luck with independence as East Timor who finally was allowed to hold their referendum in 1999.
The issue for North Bougainville was that they were fighting against the biggest powers in their region, with little help.
Australia, Indonesia, and PNG were either directly or indirectly fighting against this rebellion. Indonesia and PNG feared a ripple effect going throughout the region as both rule over areas with high degrees of separate ethnicities and languages, plus separate religions. Ironically, most of Timor and a few other islands are Catholic in Indonesia (most of those Catholic majority islands are part of the East Nusa Tengarra Province), but the difference is that East Timor was Portuguese while the rest of Timor was Dutch and then Indonesian when Indonesia became a country. Indonesia and PNG both rule over New Guinea which is the most linguistically diverse area of the world with over 1073 languages (12 shared) between both West Papua (Indonesia New Guinea) and Papua New Guinea. There are also many uncontacted people on the island, and so much of the island is yet to be discovered in terms of flora and fauna. These different people groups have been known to fight over the years. PNG has most of the languages at around 840
, while West Papua appears to have most of the uncontacted tribes at around 44
. Australia, meanwhile, wanted to keep PNG strong because PNG was an ally and furthermore, it helped that Australian companies were benefiting from PNG mining.
The only country fighting for the Bougainvillieans either directly or indirectly were the Solomon Islands, although it is highly suggested that Fiji supported the Bougainvilleans too.
Therefore, Francis Ono started to sow the seeds of armed rebellion and in 1988, the BRA began fighting, first by shutting down the Panguna Mine. Both the BRA and PNG security forces were brutal in their attacks. The brutalness of both worked against them somewhat. The PNG security forces' brutality brought most of North Bougainville to support the BRA, but the BRA's brutalness helped spur the Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF) who also mostly wanted independence, but did not want the BRA running the show and fought with PNG against the BRA. The BRF also feared that the Central Bougainvilleans (Nasiois) would dominate the new North Bougainville government. North Bougainville is diverse itself too, with over 20 different languages and two main islands, Bougainville and Buka, plus other habitable islands.
Around 1,000-2,000 combat deaths happened in this conflict, but another 10,000-20,000 people's deaths are attributed to this conflict, while 60,000 people were internally displaced and more fled the islands that made up North Bougainville. These deaths were largely due to the PNG blockade of needed medical and economic supplies.
PNG's then prime minister, Sir Julius Chan, would make his last push in 1997 to regain the Panguna Mine and then the rest of North Bougainville by hiring a group of British and South African mercenaries
or "private military companies" as they preferred to be called. The main company was Sandline International, and thus this became the Sandline affair. When PNG and the rest of the world found out, PNG arrested the mercenaries and forced Prime Minister Chan to resign.
By 1998, a ceasefire was agreed to, and in 2001, the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) was signed, promising a future referendum that PNG would have to sign off on in 10 to 15 years time, and lots of autonomy for North Bougainville making North Bougainville the Autonomous Region of North Bougainville.
Referendum and Independence?
So, where does this leave North Bougainville?
Unfortunately for the world, this most likely leaves North Bougainville in PR China's hand. PR China has opted to spend over 1 Billion US Dollars in North Bougainville to develop their country via agriculture, tourism, but also mining.
Just like in Nicaragua and the PR Chinese proposal for a Nicaragua Canal, the lucrativeness of some of these deals and the understanding that corruption can run rampant as long as the governing powers are loyal to the Communist Party of China (CCP) is an idea that unfortunately North Bougainville might get behind.
This will help serve four purposes. One, PR China will be able to exploit one of the world's largest mines, and potentially build more mines, and make a huge profit, let alone from the profits they could make exploiting the exclusive economic zone of an independent North Bougainville. With their socialist ideals, PR China will surely not feel bad taking over the PNG ownership of BCL and surely would use state-owned enterprises to control North Bougainville mining, along with the North Bougainville government. Secondly, PR China will be able to put even more pressure on the Western aligned nations of Oceania and Southeast Asia in the region. By choosing North Bougainville, PR China will look like liberators and then they could call for West Papuan independence to destabilize Indonesia too, and they could call for further destabilizations to PNG. Third, PR China will now be able to potentially flip many nations to their side in the PRC-Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan) conflict. This will put pressure on nearby archipelago nations like Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and The Marshall Islands which are the USA's closest allies, along with American territories in the region. This will force the USA to focus on this region potentially weakening the USA, and if the USA does not focus on the region, it will make the PRC stronger, thus also weakening the USA. And, lastly, this will help make the PRC have even more southern leverage in their South China Sea battle with Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and the ROC. Already, by getting the Solomon Islands under their belt, the PRC has been able to outflank this International alliance against PR Chinese aggression from the south, but by taking North Bougainville, PR China would get even closer to controlling the southern regions of the South China Sea. This would also continue the pressure exerted on Australia by PR China.
An American and Catholic Response:
How should the Holy See combat this problem?
The Holy See needs to find a way to play a middle ground in this situation. On the one hand, the Holy See wants the West to be stronger than the CCP because the CCP cracks down so much on religion and Catholicism, and the Holy See are good friends with the ROC. But, on the other hand, the Holy See wants more Catholic countries, less abortion and more pro-life people and entities, a free and fair referendum for North Bougainville, and does not want Indonesia to strengthen too much due to fears of increasing Islamic radicalization in the world's fourth most populous country as of late.
The Holy See also has key allies in this "axis of evil" being Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela. While the Catholic Church has been persecuted by these governments, it has also been able to establish relations with them to protect Catholics. This has created the potential for Catholics to be safe in a PRC dominated world, if that were to ever happen, even with the Holy See recognizing the ROC.
Therefore, the Holy See must tread carefully. It must treat the North Bougainville situation with ease, publicly welcoming any support for the free and fair referendum results to be respected, either through greater autonomy or independence by vaguely stating how the wishes of the Bougainvilleans need to be respected. And then, the Holy See should warn against the further exploitation of North Bougainville by outside forces so as to warn against the PRC without mentioning them. This would make the Holy See's comments welcoming to the PRC, assuring Catholic rights if the PRC does sign a deal with North Bougainville, but would also warn North Bougainville against the mining exploitation PRC will do, forcing Nicaragua to agree to this statement too as they portray themselves to the world as environmentalists. PRC in the meantime will be forced to agree to this statement and they will then have a tougher time exploiting North Bougainville over not wanting to appear too untrustworthy to the region, and thus will have to spend lots to cover up their plans, or, worse yet for the CCP, it will just become a giant waste for them to support North Bougainville at the cost of ruining their Indonesian or PNG potential alliance.
The Holy See should also expand their vast education network to North Bougainville to create more industrious human capital and make North Bougainville more self-reliant, which is directly in teachings with the Catholic Church. To keep North Bougainville Catholic in practice and in name, this may be key as the demands of the "axis of evil" powers as well as the demands of the West could call for North Bougainville to abandon its Catholic identity, which North Bougainville might do if they are desperate. The Holy See has many Catholic universities around the Pacific that could provide satellite campuses in North Bougainville, and possibly set up independent universities there too.
Lastly, North Bougainville represents the goal of Pope Francis which is environmentalist Catholics, as well as the goal of the Catholic Church to have more Marian devotees. North Bougainville's devotion to the Virgin Mary throughout the Civil War, and their leaders publicly stating how they have seen Mary and how Mary intercedes for the people through to Jesus and God, would create a great story to revamp the Faith around the world, and bring the world closer together in adoration to the Virgin Mary. This Marian devotion has placed women in North Bougainville as much more equal and thus, contrasts with the idea that Catholicism subjugates women to a lower standing. Instead, it will display that Catholicism merely separates women and men, a welcoming sign with the ongoing radicalism in much of the Western World.
What should the USA do?
The USA needs to use sport diplomacy, education diplomacy, and environmental diplomacy to win this public relations battle.
For sports diplomacy, the USA needs to introduce American Football into North Bougainville, as well as other American sports, to build camaraderie among the Bougainvilleans. The USA also needs to heavily invest in North Bougainville Rugby League and to have the Tomahawks (USA National Rugby League Team) schedule some friendlies or test matches against North Bougainville and potentially PNG to grow relations between the three much closer. This would serve many purposes for the region where Rugby League Football is very popular, but where American Football is growing too. First, it would create a common bond between the two nations and if PNG is included, among the three nations. Second, it will support North Bougainville in a way that would be able to be seen by both Americans and Bougainvilleans, thus connecting both countries closer together and making both people feel good about this endeavor. It may be a loss in money, but it is a gain because if there were to ever be a war with the PRC, the USA would have one more ally to base operations out of, and this would isolate PRC's Solomon Islands military apparatus from the North, and weaken the PRC's new ally, the Solomon Islands, and the North Bougainville alliance with the Solomon Islands. Fourth, this would actually improve the Tomahawks who failed to Qualify for the 2023 Rugby League World Cup, so for American Rugby League fans, this would help. Rugby League and American Football are the sports to invest in in North Bougainville because the Solomon Islands is mainly a Soccer, Futsal, and Beach Soccer nation and thus this is one of the differences between the two nations. The USA needs to portray this separateness so that North Bougainville stays further from the Solomon Islands sphere and thus the PRC sphere. Plus, if North Bougainville is able to be successful, it will show that aligning with the USA is better than aligning with the PRC, as these two nations are like West and East Germany, except that they are effectively the North and South Solomon Islands. Results matter and this could flip the region back to the USA if the North Solomon Islands, North Bougainville, is much more successful and free.
If the USA chooses environmental diplomacy, the USA should focus on developing the eco-tourist industry of North Bougainville, as well as working with New Zealand and the Republic of China to establish North Bougainville as an environmental safe haven. New Zealand is seen as a promoter of the environment and thus it may be best to engage them to create a Western-aligned North Bougainville. This way, the West can win the environmental wars as North Bougainville would be the West's environmental capital while Nicaragua would be the "axis of evil's" environmental capital. Surely, a remote island will be more environmentally friendly. The USA should also sponsor anti-CCP propaganda to show how "they wish to expand mines" around North Bougainville, similar to the propaganda technique that made the BRA so popular in the 1970s and 1980s. This would be easy to do given that the PRC appears to wish to do this, and does this in their own country and abroad already, being the largest polluting country in the world.
Furthermore, an alliance with the much more environmentally friendly Republic of China could turn North Bougainville into yet another independent nation to recognize the Republic of China weakening CCP control. The USA should exploit the fact that Taiwan and New Zealand are part of the Austronesian people as the indigenous of both nations are very well respected and preserved for the future. With the USA's control of Hawaii and other regions of the Pacific, this could do well in securing USA's re-engagement with the Pacific!
But, the USA needs to keep in mind the fierce independence of the Bougainvilleans. They are essentially President Trump Environmentalists, who are fiercely North Bougainville First and do not want outsiders in their nation! There will need to be a limit to the amount of tourists North Bougainville lets in, very similar to how many American national parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite put caps on the amount of visitors they let in. Ironically, this could create a more lucrative tourist industry for North Bougainville as it would raise the awe factor and uniqueness around North Bougainville, as well as the cost of money to travel there. But, this could also lead to heavy amounts of corruption via tourist passes quid pro quos. One could easily see a North Bougainville exploited by billionaire tech environmentalists who make the USA less popular there and then could further lead to American tech companies exploiting North Bougainville mining creating a falling out of USA-North Bougainville relations, whereby North Bougainville leaves the alliance and goes to the PRC. Thus, the USA will have to keep North Bougainville like a President Trump, very restrictive to who comes in and who comes out and how many of them come in and come out! YouTubers who are respectful, sure. Tech billionaires who are annoying and corruptive, no. In order to protect against this, the USA should work with the Holy See to make North Bougainville very socially conservative and Catholic so that it becomes untouchable to associate with these types of billionaires.
Lastly, the main thing holding back North Bougainville right now is their lack of education and home grown knowledge of many industries, most notably on mining. Making North Bougainville more self-reliant on mining would go a long way in proving to be a reliable partner to North Bougainville, if North Bougainville wants to go into mining, Many of the top schools in mining are located in the USA, including the highest ranked mining school in the world, Colorado School of Mines. Having mining knowledge may allow North Bougainville to extract resources more environmentally that would suffice both the internal revenue and the landowners. Currently, North Bougainville's government is looking to outsource the extraction of their mine once again, to create an effective monopoly which could force North Bougainville to be effectively a company-ran country like certain PNG representatives claim PNG was in the past. So, if mining does become inevitable, creating mining competition for a balance of powers, as well as mining knowledge, could reduce the issues the Bougainvilleans have with mining, and this could see North Bougainville grow to become self-reliant and very successful. But, there are many other industries that the USA and its allies can provide North Bougainville expertise on, and if the USA applies strong rule of law to its own enterprises and universities, the USA can assure that these do not abuse their power over North Bougainville. This is important for developing a strong alliance with North Bougainville.
North Bougainville represents a key place for both the Holy See and the USA.
For the Holy See, it represents a country of over 60 percent Catholics that seek to make the Catholic Church stronger in the United Nations and elsewhere with the global pro-life movements and global environmental movements the Holy See supports. For the growth of the Church and for the people most loyal to the Church, it is in the Holy See's best interest to fork out a deal with North Bougainville and others who will influence North Bougainville to create another strong Catholic nation with an independent and free Catholic Church.
For the USA, it represents a country that could either lead to a stronger or weaker CCP, and thus the USA needs to find a way to push North Bougainville into its sphere of influence. The USA has so many alliances and territory in the Pacific that North Bougainville truly is that important!
For North Bougainville, they will be best served growing closer to both the USA and the Holy See because both will be the most likely to respect their rights and freedoms more than any other alliances, and both will probably balance each other out as well.
North Bougainville will likely become an independent country by 2027! The world needs to be prepared for the Bougainvilleans.