Introduction and political competition and the second-order




change, social challenges and internal conflicts within the South Pacific all
threaten Australian domestic security, none more so than the pressure within
Papua New Guinea (PNG). Due to the close proximity to Australian borders and
the ability of small marine vessels to undertake the voyage, political,
economic and natural pressures within the Pacific Islands could result in
massive illegal migration to Australia. This migration could weaken Australia’s
ability to protect her borders, reducing her sovereignty and undermining her
government’s authority within the region. As such, it is important to learn
from history in order to understand what has occurred within the Pacific Islands
to help mitigate the underlying pressures and reduce the impact that this could
cause on the security of Australia. The conflict that occurred within
Bougainville is a good example of how Pacific Island conflicts may arise due to
economic and political competition and the second-order effects that may impact
the neighbouring nations and Australia.

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Economic Competition


the oil fields in the Middle East and the mineral deposits of Africa deplete or
become inaccessible due to war, the World has increasingly turned her attention
to other geographical areas to help supplement her demand. This has led to
growing tensions about the economic resources that the Pacific Islands hold and
could produce in the future, chiefly the vast untapped undersea oil deposits
located in and around the Pacific Islands such as Timor-Leste or Papua New
Guinea (Exxon Mobil Media Relations, 2018). Many large powerhouses such as the
United States of America and Russia have their own oil fields to resort, if the
need arises, however countries such as China and Japan have very little
domestic oil product (Marshall, 2012). This has led to increasing research and
exploration in the south Pacific and Pacific Islands. If the economic,
political and environmental policies of the exploitation of oil mirror the
policies of Bougainville’s mining of copper, conflict will invariably arise.
Whilst environmentally and politically destructive, the Rio Tinto copper mine
that operated on the Bougainville Island was incredibly important to the
economy of the PNG government, providing 20% of the national budget (Toohey,
2013). Despite this, only 1.25% of the profits were paid to the native
Bougainville citizens as royalty payments. Further, the native landholders of
the mine site only received 5% of this royalty percentage, with the remainder
gifted given to the provincial government. 
As such, there was growing discontent from the native Bougainville
people about the economic exploitation of their homeland. If future resource
royalty partition in the South Pacific and Pacific Islands mirror those found
in Bougainville, political tensions will arise from those exploited and have
the potential to cause conflict, perhaps spilling over national boundaries and
affecting Australia.


only did the mine not distribute profits equally to the Bougainville citizens
as it did to the ‘mainland’ PNG citizens and government, the mine imported
thousands of ‘red-skin’ Papua New Guineans and technically skilled foreigners
to work on the copper-ore extraction (Reddy, 2008). This caused further tension
amongst the Bougainville people who resented the cultural differences that the
immigrants brought to the island (O’Callaghan, 2002). The racial and cultural
tension was further exacerbated by the backroom deals and lies made by the
foreigners to the local Bougainville people to allow them to continue the
destructive and unethical mining practices. The deceptions by the foreigners
fostered a culture of distrust in dealing with the outsiders and local landowners
(O’Callaghan, 2002). If the cultural differences between those involved in the
mineral exploitation combined with the importation of foreign skilled workers
and unequal distribution of profits and replicated in other Pacific Island
countries, such as in the oilfields of Papua New Guinea, the foundational
issues of the Bougainville Civil War could characterise the beginnings of
future conflict within the region.


to the cultural importance placed in the inheritance of land in the Pacific Islands,
the majority of the population felt anger towards the continual mining of the Bougainville
Island and the unjust division of the profits (O’Callaghan, 2002). Future
Pacific conflict initiation could be characterised not just by the loss of land
due to mining and plantations that could force Pacific Islanders from their
ancestral homes, but by events out of their control such as climate change. In
the process of creating land for the mine, the expulsion of the Bougainville
landowners off their ancestral home was handled incredibly poorly. The Papua
New Guinean government did not appreciate how important the Bougainville
community connection with the land really was, despite being a Pacific Island
themselves. The agreement between the locals and the PNG headquarter-based
Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) had fallen apart during the 1981 seven-yearly
review run by Julius Chan, Prime Minister of PNG, with the issue of landowners
not being addressed. It was worse at the next meeting in 1988 when the Namaliu
government did not even appoint a negotiating team (Sinclair, 2000). But by
then the violence had been initiated by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army
(BRA) and retaliated by the Papua New Guinean Defence Force (PNGDF). By not
consulting or negotiating with the local landowners or indigenous people, the
PNG government created a locally grown insurgency that resisted the development
and operation of a mine that exploited the valuable natural minerals whilst
distributing the profits poorly (Sinclair, 2000). The Bougainville Civil War
setting may be pertinent to any Pacific Island nations that have the natural
resources previously discovered, or could be discovered in the future, and may
characterise the development of an armed conflict in other Pacific Islands.


Undermining Political Legitimacy


use of private military companies (PMC) to wage war also characterised the
Bougainville Civil War and could typify the qualities of warfare in future
pacific Island domestic conflicts. By importing foreign military contractors
and giving them leeway regarding how they conduct warfare within a sovereign
nation, the legitimacy of the local government is undermined. This may weaken
the power and influence the government can wield, forcing nationals to leave
and immigrate to neighbouring countries, legally or illegally, potentially
increasing the security risks to Australia (Douglas-Bowers, 2011). 


International, headed by ex-Lt. Colonel Tim Spicer, was involved from 1996 in
the suppression of the local Bougainville revolt using imported heavy weapons
and modified attack helicopters (Dinnen, 1997). Whilst originally hired to
equip, train and assist the PNGDF in the offensive against the BRA, the South
African mercenaries employed by Sandline were tasked to “conduct offensive
operations in conjunction with PNG defence forces” (McCormack, 1998). This
offensive action lead to international condemnation by other Pacific nations,
including Australia and New Zealand, who viewed this introduction of
mercenaries as a threat to regional stability and a dangerous precedent for
small governments dealing with domestic tensions. A subsequent PNG media
campaign portraying Sandlines activities as ‘instructional and developmental’
to the training of PNGDF’s military was not accepted by a majority of
international players and within the upper echelons of PNG’s own military, who
viewed them as poor value for the $36 million contract (Dinnen, 1997). This led
to the PNG government voting to institute a formal judicial inquiry into the
hiring and job role of Sandline and the way it was to be financed. When details
were released to the media, Julius Chan lost in the next election the position
of Prime Minister and his local seat of 29 years. This crisis brought the
recent UN International Convention
Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries into
debate within the PNG government, but was not signed by the current or
subsequent PNG governments. Indeed not one Pacific Island or South East Asian
government has signed the UN convention, thus not preventing themselves in the
hiring of mercenary groups for implementing international or domestic policy (McCormack,
1998). The lack of an international law preventing the use of private military
companies may characterise future Pacific Island conflicts that lack the
governmental military assets to quell domestic or international insurgencies,
leading to political instability which may threaten Australian interests within
the region.


in the South Pacific are complex and multifaceted, no more so than Papua New
Guinean politics. The handling of the Bougainville conflict led to political
upheaval in PNG and very nearly a violent revolution. If future Pacific Island
politics mirror those found in PNG and Bougainville, it could easily start a
violent domestic and regional conflict. The political relationships between
Pacific Island government officials and military officers are often strained,
occasionally leading to coups or domestic military deployments against the
government wishes, such as the Fijian military coup of 1987 (Scobell, 1994).
Whilst the PNG military did not commit to a full offensive against the Bougainville
revolutionaries during the Bougainville Crisis, the dismissal of Brigadier
General Jerry Singirok for publically condemning the Sandline contract provoked
a revolt of thousands of civilians, rioting and looting in protest.  This revolt, combined with pressure from
within the main PNGDF body, forced the government into cancelling the Sandline
contract. Had the contract not been revoked, the PNGDF may have executed more
hard-line negotiating stance dealing with the revolutionaries, perhaps even
instigating a military coup, of which the Pacific Islands are notorious for
implementing (Dinnen, 1997). The negotiation between the government and
military forces may characterise future affairs in PNG and Pacific Island
politics and, if negotiating fails, could lead to international or domestic conflict
with the Pacific Islands, inevitably involving Australia and her interests
within the region.


Security Threat to Australia


threat of a politically unstable neighbour is concerning to the Australian
government for a variety of reasons, chiefly due to the important role that PNG
has in stopping illegal migration from foreign nations. Manus Island located in
northern PNG is home to a vast Australian-owned regional processing centre that
has housed hundreds of foreign nationals hoping to migrate to Australia
illegally (Karp, 2018). Should the PNG government become inept or powerless due
to political, economic and military events, it is likely that Australia will
have to increase her presence in the region dramatically in order to ensure
undocumented travel is not occurring. As was highlighted in the Bougainville
Civil War, the ability of non-government organisations to successfully wage a
rebellion against government forces is a good indicator of the potential for other
Pacific Islands to succumb to general revolt by her people. Given the generally
poorly equipped and staffed Island militaries, it is likely that many
governments many become crippled by this revolt, leading to increased security
threats, and by extension, increase the threat to Australia.




Bougainville Civil War grants an insight into the contexts and circumstances
that may be present at the outbreak of future hostilities in the Pacific Islands.
The war was not started by ill-conceived political ideology or religious
fanaticism, but a reasonable competition over the scarce resources that the Pacific
Islands have to offer. Barring a war involving larger non-regional powers such
as the US and China, small Pacific Island conflicts may be initiated and
characterised by those found in the Bougainville Civil War; the loss of land
due to mineral or plantation development, the use of PMCs to supplement the
poorly trained or equipped local armies, and the general political instability
found in many fractured Pacific Island governments.