Ten questions: Micronesia’s President David Panuelo fronts up

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Geopolitical competition in the Pacific is not necessarily the heated knife fight that international media often make it out to be.

That’s according to the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, a Pacific Islands country of significant geostrategic interest, who is taking an optimistic approach to the subject of regional security during a time of crisis.

The FSM is an archipelagic country whose waters span 2,600,000 square kilometres, with a population of over 100,000. President David Panuelo has been in office since May 2019.

He made time to answer some questions from RNZ Pacific.

How much of a problem is climate change for FSM’s communities?

Climate Change represents the single-most significant security threat for the World, to include the Federated States of Micronesia. The practical effect of Climate Change at present is most pronounced on remote island atolls.

Most remote atolls of the FSM – Kapingamarangi, Polowat, Satowan, Woleai, Ulithi, and so forth – have suffered from an increase in banana storms, so-called because they are storms severe enough to fell banana trees but not necessarily severe enough to be categorized as typhoons that damage infrastructure. Saltwater-intrusion into taro patches, and prolonged droughts due to changing weather patterns, are one of the many reasons why only about a dozen students have enrolled this year at Mwoakilloa Atoll Public Elementary School. By contrast, there were more than 120 students at that school-and so many others like it across the Nation-at the turn of the century.

There are additional concerns from Climate Change, such as how we are seeing changes in migration patterns for highly migratory fish, such as tuna. Virtually the whole of the Federated States of Micronesia’s domestic revenues come from fisheries, and dwindling stocks juxtaposed with the fish themselves increasingly not being present in our waters threatens our economic sustainability.

Climate Change threatens the World with total civilisational collapse within our children’s lifetimes. How much of a problem is it for the FSM’s communities? Pretty significant.

Are regional countries like Australia and New Zealand doing enough to help Pacific Islands countries like yours adapt and become more resilient to climate impacts?

It is continuously confounding how Australia, who is usually one of our closest allies and friends, has ignored in recent years the calls from Pacific Island Countries to assist in Climate Change adaptation, mitigation, and resiliency-building.

To be clear, Australia very much is one of Micronesia’s closest allies and partners. Australia directly assists the FSM in a host of ways, from maritime security and surveillance to filling capacity gaps you might not otherwise think of-such as through lab analyses of pharmaceutical drugs. We trust Australia and value their friendship very much, and on a personal level I have deep admiration and respect for both Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Australia’s Ambassador to the FSM, Jo Cowley, both of whom I know care about the Pacific Islands and Micronesia.

What’s challenging about your question is that Australia does, in fact, provide assistance. A good example is that we explicitly asked Japan to assist us in tackling oil spills in Chuuk Lagoon from World War II relics, and Australia was quick to offer a helping hand. But does Australia do enough about saying out loud that Climate Change both exists and threatens us all? No, they do not. Micronesia wishes very much that Australia would join the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan and others in tackling Climate Change.

New Zealand is appropriately loud about Climate Change and is taking the necessary steps to put their money where their mouth is. In this respect, Micronesia fully appreciates New Zealand’s intentions and work so far, and New Zealanders from Auckland to Invercargill should take comfort in knowing that their friends in Pacific Islands admire them for their leadership.

There’s a drive for ocean conservation within the Pacific, but some island countries are exploring the potential for deep sea mining. What is your government’s position on this sector?

Micronesia is very proud of its conservation-commitments, such as through the Micronesia Challenge and Blue Prosperity Micronesia. Through these programs, the FSM has committed to protecting a minimum of 30 percent of our ocean territory, 50 percent of our coastal marine territory, and 50 percent of our terrestrial territory by 2030.

That said, you’re correct that some countries are exploring the potential for Deep Sea Mining. In my capacity as President of the Federated States of Micronesia, I believe that Deep Sea Mining is likely an unsustainable solution. If we are so hungry for resources that we must mine the ocean, what’s the next step after we’ve ruined the oceans the same way we’ve ruined our landmasses? There’s only one Earth to live on, after all.

However, in the interest of transparency, I must tell you that the FSM is indeed exploring the development and creation of a Competent Authority to address the Deep Sea Mining issue in our country. I do not foresee our country advocating for or participating in Deep Sea Mining, but it is essential that we possess the appropriate regulations and protections as it is likely the rest of the World will not share our conservation-focused view if such avoidance makes them wealthy.

Is FSM’s marine environment under threat from any particular industry or human activity?

I can think of two activities that threaten the Federated States of Micronesia’s marine environment, and both are also essential for our development and sustainability. They are not bad practices writ large, but both expose the sensitivity in ensuring we protect our environment while also providing livelihood for our people.

The first of these, of course, is illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Thankfully, our National Oceanic Resource Management Authority (NORMA) through partnership with the The Nature Conservancy et al. have embarked on the Technology for Tuna Transparency Challenge, which seeks to ensure that the FSM’s tuna fishery is 100 percent transparent. Additionally, the FSM protects its oceans through partnership with the United States of America, as the U.S. Coast Guard is also the FSM Coast Guard. Finally, we enjoy maritime protection partnerships with Australia and Japan, who help ensure our waters are safe.

The second of these is dredging for construction purposes. There is significant dredging activity ongoing in the FSM State of Pohnpei at this time, and while you can see with your eye that the intention is to build properties for commercial and residential use, which are important for our development, there is also evidence that such dredging activities is damaging our environment.

Has the Pacific Forum’s commitment to a review of its SG appointment process been sufficient in the view of FSM for it to reconsider its decision, along with four other Micronesian countries, to withdraw from the Forum?

No.

Some Pacific leaders like PNG’s James Marape has pleaded with the Micronesian countries to stay with the Forum – what’s your response?

The Federated States of Micronesia retains very close bonds with all Pacific Island Countries. Prime Minister Marape is a trusted friend whom I respect and admire very much, and I appreciate Papua New Guinea’s commitment to Pacific solidarity. Crucially, the development and strengthening of the Micronesian Presidents Summit does not undermine Pacific solidarity-rather, it heightens and amplifies it, as Micronesian countries deserve the opportunity to voice on the World stage issues of import to our subregion.

A good example of how Pacific solidarity has not been diminished is through the Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-related Sea-Level Rise, which has been affirmed by both the Pacific Islands Forum and the Micronesian Presidents Summit.

Micronesia will always be proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Pacific brothers and sisters, whether they hail from Fiji or Vanuatu, or Samoa or Solomon Islands. However, it is also essential that the World appreciate that the five sovereign Micronesian countries seek to ensure that our voices are heard.

In this respect, Micronesia is perhaps like New Zealand. New Zealand makes it a point that though they are a member of, say, The Five Eyes, that their foreign policy is dictated by New Zealand’s interests first and foremost. New Zealand is a close ally and friend of Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but may at times make choices and decisions that are in New Zealand’s interests instead of their allies’ interests. The same is true for the Federated States of Micronesia and the countries of the Micronesian Presidents Summit.

There is regional value in the strengthening of the Micronesian subregion, which we are not only witnessing through the development of the Micronesian Presidents Summit but also in the forthcoming establishment of the North Pacific United Nations Multi-Country Office, to be hosted in the FSM.

On the issue of Pacific regionalism, is there a danger in all our Pacific countries not standing together at this time of climate and health crises?

The Pacific countries do, in fact, stand together at this time of Climate and health crises.

The geo-political competition in the Pacific between larger external powers (outside of our countries) appears to be heating up – or is it all speculative?

Our sense is that much of the geo-political competition appears to be speculation. Allow me to explore a few reasons why I say this, with specific reference to the United States of America, Japan, Australia, and the People’s Republic of China, all of whom have a diplomatic mission in our country.

The first thing to know from the context in the Federated States of Micronesia is that, by all appearances, the situation today is the same as it was several years ago. Just last week we completed the Diplomatic League-a series of baseball games between the FSM National Government and each diplomatic mission in the country. Everyone participated, and a good time was had by all. You’ll appreciate that baseball is culturally significant to Micronesians in the way that rugby is culturally significant to New Zealanders.

Much has been said and written about the Australia, United Kingdom, United States (AUKUS) agreement, but much of what has been said and written is steeped in misinformation. There isn’t a new alliance, because those three countries are already allies with one another. Realistically, what AUKUS represents is an increase in regional security and stability, as Australia knows that the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, and others use nuclear-powered submarines. So it follows that Australia would want to be on equal footing with its partners. It’s been explained to me by Prime Minister Morrison that the Treaty of Rarotonga will not be infringed upon, and we appreciate that there is a significant distinction between a submarine being powered by a nuclear reactor and that submarine being equipped with a nuclear weapon. It should not be a secret or a surprise to any person that Australia would be interested in protecting its citizens and territory, and as Australia has also committed to protecting the sovereignty of Pacific Islands’ territory, such as from illegal fishing, AUKUS does not represent a seismic shift-or any shift at all-from previous commitments or engagements. The biggest news here is that there’s yet another acronym being employed by Governments across the world, with the practical effect being that regional security is strengthened vis-à-vis Australia having access to newer technology. It’s good news, but not the world-changing earth-shattering news as presented by international media.

Much has been said and written about an increase in rhetoric between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan Province, particularly at the beginning of this month of October, 2021. International media wonder if China and Taiwan Province will engage in something more heated than speeches. The answer is “no.” Well, why do I say that? So, it is very much worth remembering that the Communist Party of China recently celebrated its 100th year anniversary, and China held its National Day on 01 October. I know from my own meetings with President Xi that he is a peaceful fellow who wants the best for China, but you can appreciate that he is duty-bound to the Chinese people to protect China’s territorial integrity, which Micronesia supports through our support of the One-China Policy. Symbolically important anniversaries are always the time for big speeches, and as a case-in-point we’re intending to hold a symbolic 35th anniversary of FSM Independence in concert with 35 years of Free Association with the United States on our own National Day on November 3rd. It’s entirely reasonable and understandable for China to use important holidays and anniversaries to reaffirm to their citizens their national intentions and priorities.

Much has been said and written about Japan seeking to strengthen their Self-Defence Force. Well, Japan has been the victim of North Korean people-smugglers and has been the target of threats of North Korean missile attacks. Additionally, Japan relies on fisheries just like Micronesia does, and so has committed itself to a Free & Open Indo-Pacific. That’s not a sign of geopolitical-heat-ups, it’s a sign of good leaders striving to do their duty to their citizens to keep them safe. A more versatile Japan Self-Defense Force stabilizes and improves upon regional security in the same way that AUKUS improves upon regional security.

Much has been said and written about the United States of America seeking to expand its Armed Forces presence in the Federated States of Micronesia, with headlines that we’ll be receiving a military base. Yet, anyone following my Presidential Statements and how they align with headlines would note that shortly after I visited the U.S State of Hawaii for our High-Level Defence Talks I also made a trip to the U.S Territory of Guam, where we saw the commissioning of three new U.S Coast Guard Cutters through the newly-named Coast Guard Forces Micronesia. Those cutters have already saved Micronesian lives through Search & Rescue Operations, and have already played a key role in tackling illegal fishing in our waters. A greater Coast Guard presence in Micronesia stabilizes and improves upon regional security, and specifically Micronesia’s security, which the United States is obligated to provide under the Compact of Free Association, as Amended.

I appreciate that international media seek stories that get them listeners, clicks, and eyeballs. What I would emphasise is that, having close relations with the United States, Japan, Australia, and China, the Federated States of Micronesia has total faith and confidence in all parties to keep our Pacific region safe, and that is demonstrated by our friends, allies, and development partners’ collective and continuous acts of assistance and sincere friendship. Every country is taking actions in their national interest, and every country has the collective interest to keep our region secure, safe, and stable.

That’s why, again, the real discussion has to come right around back to Climate Change. That’s where the real story is, because in the end it doesn’t matter if you have a nuclear-powered submarine, a rapid response cutter, or a dramatic speech, if the threat projection is total civilisational collapse in our children’s lifetimes unless we mitigate and adapt right now. Geo-politics is an abstract concept to Micronesia. Climate Change is right here in front of us. The United States, China, Japan, Australia, and other countries need to make Climate Change a separate, distinct, non-political matter for collaboration and cooperation.

FSM has managed to ward off cases of Covid, but what has been the real impact on the country from the pandemic so far?

As of 19 October, 2021, the Federated States of Micronesia remains COVID-19 free. This is in part thanks to the dedication and diligent efforts of our Nation’s healthcare sector, as well as voluminous and significant support from our friends, allies, and development partners.

Before answering your question proper, I would like to express thanks to those friends, allies, and development partners for their support. In late January 2020, the FSM received the same briefings the U.S President received from the U.S Centres for Disease Control & Prevention, and we took their advice and guidance to produce appropriate policies. Collectively, the United States has assisted the FSM in so many ways during this Pandemic. We received our first COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020; we have received tens upon tens of millions of dollars of financial, programmatic, and in-kind support, such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Programme funded by the U.S Department of Labor; direct assistance from the U.S CARES Act; ongoing and regular U.S CDC support both virtually and in-person when possible and appropriate; and equipment such as personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other medical tools and devices. At my request, both staff from the U.S. Embassy and their Defence Attache Office have been observers in our COVID-19 Task Force. If I’ve missed anything significant, it’s only because the assistance itself has been significant in both number and scope.

Each of the FSM’s friends, allies, and development partners have contributed extensively to our efforts to combat Covid-19. The People’s Republic of China donated containerised quarantine units, personal protection equipment, and technical support. Japan and Australia have donated equipment and programmatic support–and it must be emphasised that this is visible in part through their direct participation, at my request, in our Covid-19 Task Force meetings, along with the rest of the diplomatic corps, including UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the International Organisation for Migration, and others.

I don’t know how you assign a dollar value to having the privilege of the World Health Organisation explain to your Task Force what we collectively know about Covid-19, moving onwards to the Japanese Ambassador explain to your medical teams how Japan handles Covid, moving onwards to the Australian Ambassador explain how Australia handles Covid, moving onwards to UNICEF describing how best we can teach children proper handwashing techniques, but it has been extremely valuable to our country. Words cannot express the appreciation our country has for our partners.

To your question itself–the reality, Johnny, is that the Covid-19 Pandemic has impacted every person on the planet, including every person in Micronesia. Even today we have hundreds of families stranded abroad, and while we have been conducting repatriation flights every few weeks the issue is compounded since people leave at a greater rate than they can return. More than 2,000 citizens left the FSM during the March to December 2020 period, and we are on track to having that number even higher for the whole of 2021 despite beginning repatriation efforts this past May.

Why do people leave? Well, more than 2,000 jobs have been lost. Just because the Pandemic exists doesn’t mean life stops, so we have citizens leaving for medical treatment, for school, and to reconnect with their families throughout the U.S and its territories. Persons familiar with the FSM can confidently attest that the FSM has suffered from the brain-drain problem for many years; the Pandemic has simply made that problem worse.

There are so many ways the Pandemic has impacted people. A husband separated from his wife for now nearly two years; a child who, despite our Covid-19 free status, couldn’t attend school during the March to June 2020 school closure; a fisherman whose main source of income has dried up; the businesswoman whose store can no longer make a profit selling souvenirs.

Micronesians would disproportionately suffer from Covid-19, too, whether it’s because of our lifestyles or our co-morbidities or because of something else. I received very valuable but heartbreaking information from our allies. In the U.S State of Hawaii, the line graphs showed me that you might see, for every 100,000 persons, 300 or 400 white people, Japanese people, or Native Hawaiian people come down with Covid-19. It spiked up to 700 or so for the Filipino community. But for Micronesians? The number went up to 3,500 cases per 100,000 persons. Can you imagine what Covid-19 would look like in a community like the FSM, where one third of the population has diabetes or high-blood pressure, where families of all age groups sleep together, and where everyone drinks and eats from the same cups and bowls? I did. The most difficult decision of my life was closing the borders of our country.

Are you familiar with the Trolley Problem? This is where you have a train on the track and it barrels down at a fast speed. The train will run over five people–but you can stop it if you a pull a lever. Pulling the lever will make the train go onto a different track, but on that track is one person. If you do nothing, are you responsible for the train running over the five people? If you pull the lever, are you responsible for what you’ve done to the person who was not previously in harm’s way?

Pulling the lever–closing the borders–saved lives. Pulling the lever also stranded Micronesian citizens and caused significant, self-imposed economic harm. The choice I made has kept the Nation Covid-19 free, but it was not a choice where the outcomes would be “a lot of harm” or “no harm at all.” There would be harm, it simply came down to how much harm there would be, and to whom it would effect.

Any Head of State or Head of Government is duty-bound to serve their citizens and residents, to both protect their freedoms but also to protect their lives and their livelihoods. I believed that saving lives is the first priority, and that protecting livelihoods would be the second, because a livelihood only matters to the degree that there is a life to have it in the first place. (This is internally consistent with my other answers because tackling Climate Change, while arguably also a request for self-imposed economic harm, also saves lives).

There is good news to share in this regard, that is, regarding saving livelihoods, and it behooves me to share it. We have implemented more social care programmes during this Pandemic than at any other point in time during our Nation’s history. In this respect, the Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia has appropriated domestic revenues for the purposes of providing financial support to our tourism sector, and the practical effect is that hotels and restaurants are still open because the employees’ wages and salaries are subsidised by the Government. The United States of America, as I mentioned before, extended its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Programme to us. The Asian Development Bank has kindly supported our Social Protection programming, including the Low-Income Household Programme, which has provided families one-time payments of US$1,000 and which had both the intent, and the effect, of providing temporary cash relief for households outside of the formal labor sector, such as farmers and fishermen.

What is the real impact of Covid-19 in the FSM? I meet my Cabinet in person, because they are here in Palikir, but Congress meets virtually, because they are scattered across our islands. Children go to school blissfully unconcerned about the virus, but their parents wonder when the borders will open so business will pick-up. Mothers meet each other in the mornings in the community house, unworried about eating from the same plate, but wonder when their sons they haven’t seen in years can come home and visit.

SOURCE: RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS