The Pacific Islands is in a period of transition, with two new potential independent states on the horizon. In New Caledonia and Bougainville, referenda on self-determination are the culmination of decades-long peace processes.

The first referendum was held in New Caledonia in November 2018. While it returned a 56.7% majority “no” vote, the closer-than-expected result boosted the hopes of the pro-independence side for the future. The question is by no means settled in New Caledonia; rather, the Noumea Accords signed in 1998 allow for two further referenda to take place before 2022.

In Bougainville, after several delays a (one-off) referendum is scheduled to be held on 23 November this year.

The coral reefs of New Caledonia (Photo: NASA via Rawpixel Ltd/Flickr)

At stake in both cases is the important question of sovereignty. Yet sovereignty is not a binary concept, nor is it necessarily tied to independence. In the Pacific – made up largely of small-island developing states facing the particular development challenges that entails – independence comes with its own constraints.

For independent states, close ties to former colonial powers and other developed states, in terms of aid, trade, and preferential migration arrangements, are common. The late Kanak pro-independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou noted this dynamic:

Sovereignty means the right to choose one’s partners. For a small country like ours, independence means working out interdependency.

Sovereignty in the Pacific is more flexible than a simple independence/territory binary, and many Pacific Islands countries have shown there is potential opportunity in exploring a “third option”, in between territorial status and independence.

Cook Islands and Niue are self-governing in free association with New Zealand, meaning residents hold New Zealand citizenship. While these two countries are not members of the United Nations General Assembly, they can sign treaties, establish diplomatic relations with countries, and join international organisations, including the Pacific Islands Forum, in their own right. The two countries both elect legislatures that are responsible for domestic and foreign affairs, but New Zealand is responsible for their defence.

Free association is not without drawbacks. Free movement between freely associated and metropolitan states has prompted concerns of brain drain.

The Micronesian nations of Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia demonstrate another path. They are independent states, but under the Compact of Free Association, citizens have the right to live and work in the United States, and the US provides financial assistance in exchange for defence responsibilities.

Where independence is reduced to a binary yes/no question, these “third options” tend to drop off the table. Yet they are increasingly attractive to political actors conscious that a vote for or against independence, while resolving the political status issue, does not solve the problems of a politically divided society.

In New Caledonia, a potential free association–type arrangement has been long been mooted by academics but highlighted by politicians building up to the 2018 referendum. In 2017, French justice minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas suggested the possibility of free association for New Caledonia. While quickly rebuffed by anti-independence political leaders in the territory – Sonia Backès argued it would create a “fragile and unstable relationship” with France – the proposal was noted with interest by key pro-independence leaders.

In the case of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape expressed his support for a “third option”:

I believe there is room for a third option, if both sides can settle it, something that gives them [Bougainville] the economic independence.

Free association, of course, is not without drawbacks. Free movement between freely associated and metropolitan states has prompted concerns of brain drain. All freely associated states have large populations living in either the United States or New Zealand. For Cook Islands and Niue, the populations living in New Zealand far exceed the number of people living on their home islands. For the states freely associated with the US, there has been a backlash against recent state and federal attempts to restrict access to services in the US for citizens of freely associated states, including Medicaid and drivers’ licences. For the states freely associated with New Zealand, proposals to become full members of the United Nations have been discouraged by New Zealand, raising questions about the limits of “flexible” sovereignty.

Both New Caledonia and Bougainville currently represent “third options” of their own. Each is unique within its respective overarching political system. New Caledonia has a special status in the French constitution as an “overseas country” of France, distinct from other French overseas collectivities and territories, with more autonomy and a separate political system. Bougainville, once a province of Papua New Guinea, is now an autonomous region with its own constitution and autonomous government.

Yet the enduring calls for independence in both New Caledonia and Bougainville suggest a “third option” is not the win-win proposition that some might suggest. Independence in both places is a highly emotive issue, intrinsically tied to a violent history of secessionist struggle, and while “third options” may look good on paper, flexible sovereignty may for some not ever be sovereign enough.


The Lowy Institute is part of the  Pacific Research Program