Thu, Oct 17, 2019 - Page 5 News List

US edges China out of a race to fund Pacific vote

Reuters, SYDNEY

The US and its Pacific allies have plugged a funding gap that endangered next month’s independence referendum in Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) region of Bougainville, in a strategic move that also sidelined China, two sources said.

Western nations are looking to rein in China’s influence in the increasingly contested Pacific, where last month it drew away two of Taiwan’s allies, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, triggering a strong rebuke from the US.

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

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

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

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

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs 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 US, along with Australia, New Zealand and Japan, helped plug the funding gap of 7.1 million kina (US$2 million), a breakdown of funding arrangements provided by the Bougainville Referendum Commission showed.

PNG was the biggest contributor, setting aside 18.7 million kina.

The referendum commission did not respond to questions about why China, a major financier to PNG and the region, did not contribute.

Bougainville was regarded as a strategic location during World War II, 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.

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