PALIKIR, Pohnpei—On March 10th, 2022, His Excellency David W. Panuelo—President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)—provided introductory remarks at the Pacific Islands Program Opening Conference. Co-hosted by both the Pacific Community (SPC) and the French Institute of International Relations, President Panuelo described what is going on in the FSM and other Pacific Island Countries, what interest and role there might be for Europeans in the Pacific more generally, and advocated for the establishment of an Office of the European Union to be based in the FSM and to serve the North Pacific.
Address by H.E. David W. Panuelo
On the Occasion of the Pacific Islands Program Opening Conference (SPC)
Kaselehlie! I bring you warm greetings from this Paradise in Our Backyards, the Federated States of Micronesia or FSM. Today, the Pacific Community (SPC) and the French Institute of International Relations are hosting panels to talk about two important questions: “What is going on in the Pacific Island Countries?” and “What interest and role is there for Europeans in the Pacific?” My introductory remarks today will attempt to answer these two questions from the perspective of my country.
What is going on in the Pacific Island Countries? Well, let’s look at the context of the FSM. In our country, and in no particular order, we are constantly talking about, and thinking about, the existential security threat of Climate Change; when to open our borders and transition, SAFELY, from our status as COVID-19 free to a new status of COVID-19 protected; how to improve our economy to bring back our educated citizens abroad; how to make our infrastructure climate-resilient; and how to manage the needs of our People while equally managing our relationships with our friends, partners, and allies. I will speak on each of these before proceeding to the second question.
Climate Change is a reality for the FSM and all Pacific Island countries. Its existence, and forthcoming gravity, impact the whole of our society and every single domestic and foreign policy decision we make. In remote islands like Kapingamarangi, which is home to a unique ethnic and linguistic group, we face hard questions, like how do we survive if our taro patches become inundated with salt water? How do we keep the language and culture alive if people leave when they get older? From Tuvalu to the Marshall Islands, and from Fiji to Samoa, every island is facing questions on how to mitigate and adapt to Climate Change.
COVID-19 is another topic our collective Pacific region is focused on. In the FSM, we are still COVID-19 free. We have more than enough vaccines for our population, every person, to get fully vaccinated and boosted. But closing our borders the way we have since January 2020 has meant substantial economic hardship to our people. At some point, I will need to make the decision to reopen our borders if only so families can be reconnected and businesses can prosper. But I closed the borders to save lives, which is the responsibility of any public servant with the capacity to do so. It is essential that we consider the value of human life in all of our decisions, and recognize that lives matter more than dollars.
But our economy matters, too, and there’s no escaping the fact that Pacific Islanders, regardless of jurisdiction, don’t wish to leave home, but often feel that they are required to in order to seek a better life. In Samoa and Tonga, this means temporary workers in Australia and New Zealand working in the agricultural sector. For the FSM, it means that about one third of our total population lives in the United States of America, including some of our best and brightest. If you have a PhD and you work in the school system in the State of Chuuk, you will need ten years of experience to still make less than someone moving to Guam tomorrow would make working in the hospitality sector. Emigration is a right through our Compact of Free Association with our first and foremost ally, the United States, and I would never begrudge any person for seeking a better life abroad—but the result is brain-drain, which hurts our capacity to tackle problems like Climate Change and our Nation’s overall development.
Tackling Climate Change, as I mentioned above, is our primary task. For this purpose, we have been trying to make our infrastructure climate-resilient. It’s worth explaining what I mean by that, because I’d forgive you if you heard the term “climate-resilient roads” and thought it was a fancy marketing tool. But it’s not; it’s a real thing. In Pohnpei State, our capital, where it rains nearly every day of the year, the roads that we fix can become full of potholes in a matter of months. Roads that decay directly leads to pollution in our waterways, which kills off the mangroves that keep us safe from big ocean waves. Much of my administration has been focused on expanding climate resilient infrastructure, such as roads that can last decades instead of months and years, and buildings that don’t collapse when a typhoon hits our shores.
That’s why managing our relationships with our partners, friends, and allies is so critical. The broader Pacific foreign policy is that we are enemies to none, and friends to all. And this is embedded in our FSM Constitution, which declares that we extend to all nations that which we seek: peace, friendship, cooperation, and love in our common humanity. But what does that mean, to manage our relationships?
Well, with development partners at the NGO-level, such as the Pacific Community, it means asking for their support in enhancing transparency and accountability in our Government. For the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, it means soliciting their support for our climate-resilient infrastructure projects. And for region or sub-region wide organizations like the Pacific Islands Forum and the Micronesian Presidents Summit, it means liaising with our Pacific Island brothers and sisters so that we can jointly work together to make our voice impactful abroad, whether it be at COP26 or at the United Nations General Assembly.
There’s another level to all of this, too, and it relates to this meeting’s intention to discuss Europe’s views on the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The FSM is the only country in the world with a Compact of Free Association with the United States of America and diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. We call our relationship with America an Enduring Partnership, and we call our relationship with China a Great Friendship. The Americans, to the FSM, are like family; and the Chinese, to us in the FSM, are great friends.
A critic, or a critic with a dim view might assume that Pacific Island Countries wish to maximize the fruits of our relationships with all countries, and to the FSM they’d say that we get education sector funding from America, patrol boats from Australia, port upgrades from Japan, and Government Complexes from China. And it’s true that we are getting those benefits from our partners, but it’s not simply because we want to take all that we can. It’s because, at an elemental level, we want peace. I cannot drive to Palikir from my home, my municipality, without passing by the relics of World War 2, and the relics I see in my country are similar to what you would see in Kiribati, Solomon Islands, and other countries in our region.
And that’s, in part, why the FSM severed diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation when they invaded Ukraine. It’s our country’s way of emphasizing that we cannot even begin to tolerate, and not even as an idea, that another war in the Pacific can be possible. Our region must be peaceful, today, and tomorrow, and forever.
This leads to the second question this conference will ask: “What interest and role is there for Europeans in the Pacific?”
The very short answer to that question is: a lot! There is a lot that Europeans can do in the Pacific, and let me count the ways, starting with why Europeans should be interested in the Pacific, and concluding with what I envision Europeans’ role in the Pacific could be.
Regarding why Europeans should be interested in the Pacific, the first answer is that it’s because Europeans have never left it in the first place. Australia and New Zealand are predominantly English-speaking and ethnically European. New Zealand in particular has sometimes been described as the most European country outside of Europe (as Australia has sometimes been described as the most American country outside of North America). Like the United States with Guam and Hawaii, France retains territories in the Pacific. Here in the FSM—and I say this with much love, but also with quotation marks we were “discovered” by the Spanish, which is why there is a Spanish Wall in Kolonia. Then the Germans came to make money out of selling copra, which is processed coconut, and that is why there is a German belltower and church relics in Kolonia.
The second reason Europeans should have an interest in the Pacific is for the same reason Europeans should have an interest in the activities and developments in the Caribbean, the Americas, Africa, or Asia. That is: we are one of the places in the world, and what happens here, or doesn’t happen here, inevitably influences what happens or doesn’t happen in your own shores.
I’ll give you another example: the Pacific Partnership. This US-lead coalition program sees theUnited States, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, and other countries working together to provide tangible support to countries in the Indo-Pacific. The result for the FSM has meant activities like fixing the roofs on schools, providing medical training to our nurses, and providing dental care to remote communities, among other things.
If these kinds of programs sound interesting, or if you simply see the value in having European eyes and ears in our part of the world, then I have a final recommendation before I conclude: establish an Office of the European Union in the North Pacific. I believe that such an office located in the North Pacific would allow the office currently located in Fiji, in the South Pacific, to better focus its efforts there, and also allow for Europe to enjoy expanded coverage in the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of Nauru, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Kiribati. You would be welcomed here, and you would find that you are not alone as we have recently seen the opening of a new United Nations Multi-Country Office in our sub-region of Micronesia.
I do note, in the interest of transparency, that on January 21st of this year, I wrote to His Excellency Emmanuel Macron, in his capacity as President of the Council of the European Union, to advocate that it is in the Pacific’s interest, as well as Europe’s interest, that the European Union expand its office into the North Pacific to be based in the Federated States of Micronesia.
I hope my remarks today have left you with the same view that what happens in the Pacific Islands matters, that Europeans absolutely have a role and place in the Pacific, and that this is one way of making that happen.
Thank you for giving me your time, and have a wonderful and productive conference. Kahlangan and thank you all very much.