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December 2019
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Washington DC Peace & Security Forum

Washington DC Forum: Peace, Stability, and Economic Development in Micronesia

Washington DC, USA - UPF's Office of Peace and Security Affairs in Washington, DC, organized a forum on "Peace, Stability, and Economic Development in Micronesia" on September 18. As the US involvement in the Middle East winds down and China continues to rise as a global superpower, the strategic and geopolitical value of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia will increase dramatically in the coming decade. The nations must establish their identity as individual countries, and at the same time, unite together and speak as a single voice on the international stage. Issues addressed included: (1) the impact of climate change, (2) economic development in the region, and (3) the role of the external powers in working with the region on these critical challenges.

Co-Moderators:

Dr. Satu P. Limaye - Director, East-West Center in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Mark Borthwick - Director, U.S. Asia Pacific Council, Washington, D.C.

Host:

Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director, UPF Office for Peace and Security Affairs, Washington, D.C.

Participants:

Amb. Dennise Mathieu - Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, State Department
Amb. Winston Thompson - Embassy of Republic of Fiji
Amb. Charles Paul - Embassy of Republic of Marshall Islands
Dr. Dong Woo Kim - Regional Chair, UPF-Oceania
Thomas McDevitt - Chairman, The Washington Times
Minister Amar Gupta -Head Priest, Hindu Capital Temple, Greater Washington DC.
Dr. Carolyn Lincoln – UPF Ambassador for Peace
Ursula Lincoln – UPF Ambassador for Peace
Katherine Magruder - Former Peace Corps volunteer (Cape Verde and Togo)
Joseph McColley - Georgetown University
Elliot Wolff – President, Advantage Healthplan, Inc.
Rev. Levy Daugherty - National Advisor, ACLC Executive Committee
Barbara Moseley-Marks - Realtor
Prof. Diane Falk - Former Librarian, World & I magazine
Annie Gagne - Special Advisor, Office of Micronesia, UPF International
Nathaniel Ohs - George Mason University
Tomiko Duggan - Acting Secretary General, UPF-USA
Dr. Mark Barry - Advisor, Peace & Security Affairs, UPF-DC Office, (observer)
Dr. William Selig - Deputy Director, UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs, Washington, DC

Background: The island states that make up the region of Micronesia include the Kiribati, Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), Palau, and the U.S. territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), the Midway Islands and Wake Atoll.  Following World War II, several of these states were adopted as “The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands” under the United Nations charter, with primary responsibility for their protection and administration falling to the United States.  In 1986, the nations Micronesia (FSM), the Marshall Islands (RMI), and Palau entered into a Compact of Free Association with the United States (COFA). Under the auspices of the compact, the US provides financial assistance for health, education, and infrastructure, in exchange for full international defense authority.  They are overseen by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs and provide for a 15-year period of assistance, being renegotiated with each state periodically – the most recent renewal having been extending until 2023 for Micronesia (FSM) and the Marshall Islands (RMI). 

Fishing, tourism and agriculture are the principal industries in the region but geographical isolation and poor infrastructure have traditionally impeded sustained development.  Efforts have been made in the past, traditionally by Australia, New Zealand and United States to help fund overall development projects.  However, in recent years China and Taiwan have contributed significantly to development funding – in an effort that has been referred to as “checkbook diplomacy” – in order to gain recognition of sovereignty by the Pacific Island States.  The Pacific has also been a key resource in feeding the world’s growing population (especially in regards to China and Japan) – as holders of thousands of miles of protected waters (referred to as Exclusive Economic Zones).  For other nations, these waters are strategic as open lines for trade between East and West, making it essential for the US to maintain close ties and secure a long-term presence both economically and militarily.

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Opening remarks of Dr. Antonio Betancourt - Today’s forum on “Peace, Stability and Economic Development in Micronesia,” will examine topics such as U.S. policy toward Micronesia; economic development; relations with China and Japan; relations among the other Micronesian nation states; Micronesia’s military and economic alliances; as well as the recent Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting dealing with climate challenges.  

The inspiration for this forum came from Dr. Dong Woo Kim, the Regional Chair of the UPF chapter in Oceania. Part of the background materials for our meeting today includes an essay, entitled, ”Compact of Free Association and The Future of Micronesia,” contributed by Dr. Kim and Gregory Stone, Regional UPF Secretary General. I highly recommend it. It is an excellent historical backgrounder on Micronesia.

The UPF chapter in Micronesia has been active since 2008. Much of the work there has focused on character education for the young people and promoting the UN International Day of Families. There have also been a number of successful service projects, including the Dial-a-Ditch Pothole Elimination Project, which has prevented many road accidents according to police estimates and possibly has saved many lives.

Dr. Satu Limaye, the co-moderator welcomed the participants and described the work of the East-West Center, which was established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to prepare the United States for an era of growing Asia Pacific prominence. The East-West Center has done a lot of work in the Pacific islands for example through the good graces of the State Department -- the United States-Timor-Leste (USTL) Scholarship Program -- a training and education program. They also have The Pacific Islands Development Program (PIDP), established in 1980 to assist Pacific islands leaders in advancing their collective efforts. East-West Center works with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), established in 1990, to address global warming. Dr. Limaye just recently returned from a visit to Guam and a look at the U.S. force posture in the region.

Dr. Mark Borthwick, the co-moderator spoke about his own experience in Micronesia when he went there as a graduate student in 1975. At that time, it was The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) and administered by the United States (1947-1986). He was there in a program funded by the United States Social Security Administration to examine some of the social programs affecting women and children. The experience led him later to his work on the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs in the House of Representatives. He said, “the forums and institutions that engage the whole region of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia are relevant even though with respect to Micronesia, the US has various special concerns, namely the legacy of World War II and the nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands.”

In referring to the various forces affecting the region, Dr. Borthwick said, “the major powers in the Pacific have influenced and shaped the island societies for centuries beginning with the Age of Exploration.” He said, “there are forces that try to pull these disparate islands communities closer together but we also see rivalries and interests that sometimes are pulling them apart. For both the communities themselves and the external powers to deal with, and this is the real challenge and it requires a great deal of communication, discussion is needed about where we are headed not just in the short run but in the long run for Micronesia specifically and the Pacific island communities in general.”

Amb. Charles Paul, Embassy of the Marshall Islands – The Ambassador said, “We don’t often have a symposium like this that’s dedicated to Micronesia especially here in Washington, DC.” The Ambassador spoke about the recent Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) hosted by the RMI with the theme “Marshaling the Pacific response to the climate challenge.” U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell headed the US delegation. He said, “There are so many issues that are important including fishing and climate change. These are exacerbated by the distance and population of the islands. The Micronesian region is fortunate to have a special and unique relation with United States. With the Compact of Free Association, we’re able to tie into many programs that are designed for domestic use here in United States such as federal grants and also take advantage of programs designed for sovereign countries. We cannot ignore the legacy of the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands that to this day we still feel there are a lot of health related and socio-economic issues related to the testing. I mentioned earlier that I just came back from the Pacific Islands Forum in the Marshall Islands. The only other time the Marshall Islands hosted the Pacific Islands Forum was in 1996. The leaders adopted the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership. (  http://www.majurodeclaration.org/the_declaration.) The basic premise of the Majuro Declaration is to empower individuals and countries to join the fight with respect to climate change.”

Amb. Winston Thompson, Embassy of Fiji – The ambassador referred to the influence of the colonial powers. “Each of our countries in the Pacific went its separate way partially based on their colonial experience which continues to influence the situation that we find ourselves in and the problems that we face. The colonial experience in Micronesia with Germany and America is different from the other nations. All of these nations had different experiences and gives us a different sort of perception as each one adjusted to colonialism some more successfully than others. Since the colonial times the forces of disintegration have been much more dominant than the forces of integration. One of the challenges the region faces is to find a way of reestablishing our identity as a region and as individual countries. At this time, there are many more forces at work that make it difficult to have our voices more audible. We have established the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) group for countries which share similar challenges, and we are trying to be heard in the UN. It is the only way that small countries like ours can have influence. We must group together. This is the process that is underway and we hope it can have some effect.

Dr. Limaye asked, “How do we engage more players in this region on a host of issues and prioritize them? Inevitably these major powers have their own priorities but it seems there are three lines of inquiry: 1) the impact of climate change, 2) economic development in the region, and 3) the role of the external powers in working with the region on these critical challenges.

Dr. Betancourt, Director of the UPF Office of Peace and Security and host of the forum said, “Part of the goals of UPF and the founders was to utilize the statesmanship, good will and expertise within the different regions of the world to organize volunteers to create and advise whatever the processes in problem managing and problem solving to secure permanent and sustainable peace; as well as to work towards resolving problems of war and peace, social and economic development, transfer of technologies, climate change.”

He said that the way the people of Micronesia or other small Island nations look at the world is different from continental people. “It’s been typically continental societies who are part of power struggles for domination and control, whether for natural resources, military, or political power. How can the small island states of the region tap into their human statesmanship and educated diplomacy to be more engaged in peace diplomacy, and to address issues affecting their region before the world forums, such as the UN, ASEAN, APEC, the Council of Europe, the European Union and other international organizations and powers in the region?”

Dr. Limaye asked, “If new members like Russia, UAE and Turkey and others are playing an increasing role and potentially increasing their leverage among the Pacific Island states does it put more pressure on the Pacific states to act on issues that may not be their core priorities?”

Amb. Paul said that the biggest challenge the regions faces is development and resources. He gave the example: “Whether an island or a landlocked country, all nations are affected by climate change one way or the other so issues related to climate change may not be similar in all terms but they are the common denominator. The Pacific Island countries may have to act on a wide range of issues that may not be entirely relevant to them but the number one priority for the islands is development. It’s a two-way street.”

Dr. Carolyn Lincoln, a UPF Ambassador for Peace asked about the Evidence Based Outcome that the Islanders expect. She said, “In terms of a social basis, what is it that the citizen within all your countries can expect in terms of cultural competency and what can you do for their families? She shared about her experiences traveling around the world with the UPF founders. “We are in a global system and in order for young people to exist in a global world and have respect, it’s important to follow the best evidence-based approach which respects the individual’s dignity.

Amb. Paul said that the Marshallese people have a lot of issues related to basic needs. The average high school graduates with a third-grade mathematic level. The job of the leaders is to provide the best opportunities for the citizens and make sure the public school teachers are competent and can engage and challenge the students mentally and spiritually. The ambassador said, “There’s the situation in the schools, in the homes, in the families. There are so many parallel issues. How do you solve this specific issue? It’s not just a question of getting better teachers.”

Dr. Dong Woo Kim, Regional Chairman for the UPF chapter in Oceania said that after living and traveling in the Pacific region the past five years, he feels it is imperative “to ring the alarm bell in the United States.” There are serious security issues in Micronesia, but only the US has the economic and military might to properly respond to the growing crisis. In his travels and meetings, Dr. Kim has seen an increasing rise in Chinese immigration. “A few years ago,” he said, “mobs burned out Chinese owned businesses in the Solomon Islands, but if that happened today, I believe the Chinese government would step in to protect their people. Chinese immigration continues to increase. Who can stop this? Who can preserve peace and security? That’s why I want to ring the alarm bell. The Compact of Free Association is an important key for this region to preserve world peace and security. My internal purpose to initiate this forum was to bring together the leaders and get them to really understand what is the realistic situation and to talk to each other.”

Barbara Moseley-Marks, a realtor in the Virginia area, who was born in Guyana, the only South American nation whose official language is English, asked about the climate issues facing the region.

Amb. Paul elaborated on this important subject. “There are many aspects that lead to climate change, for example, a rising or lowering of the waters can alter the ecosystem. Certain fish might have to migrate elsewhere. This would impact other fish as well as the local economy. Ocean warming and super typhoons are serious dangers. Climate change is a generic term to describe these phenomena. Global warming occurs when gases get trapped and warm up the planet. I come from a country that is about 7 feet above sea level. Just a few months ago the airport was so inundated by seawater the airport was shut down for 3-4 days. In this day and age, people fly everywhere. That airport is our economic lifeline. Of course there are ships that come in back-and-forth but not at the rate that airplanes bring in products and tourists. If the predictions are correct, in 50 years there may not be a Marshall Islands. We are fighting to survive. …  On the small islands, everyone depends on water. Water is the lifeline to everything. You drink water, you cook with water, plants grow with water. Over centuries the islands develop a water lens, which separates the salt water from the ground. When the salt water rises eventually it will mix with freshwater and then nothing will grow.”

The ambassador spoke about the special relationship between the Marshall Islands and the United States. There is a procedure called the Joint Economic Management and Financial Accountability Committee (JEMFAC), which oversees how funding is dispersed to the islands. He said, “It doesn’t necessarily mean everything that the US proposes we have to accept and vice versa. It’s been a smooth ride but in the event that anything conflicts with our priorities there’s a built-in system to work it out.”

Katherine Magruder, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Cape Verde and Togo echoed Dr. Kim’s observations about the Chinese presence in the developing world.  She noted that throughout both countries of service, no matter how large or small the town, Chinese small business owners were everywhere and manufactured Chinese goods made up a large part of the product market. The Chinese government, she added, has funded several key infrastructure projects in both nations – including the development of desperately needed ports and national highways, meanwhile the only key American presence was oftentimes the Peace Corps itself.  Ms. Magruder posed the question to the ambassadors, “When you’re looking at all these influences from superpowers – Russia, Turkey, China, the US -- is it difficult for your government to balance all these competing interests? How do we ensure we can help build your country so that you’re not taken advantage of by any country including our own?”

Dr. Betancourt pointed out that China is a capitalist country but at the same time it is a centralized command economy. An economy like China creates a great imbalance in the relationship with the other economies particularly the United States, the European powers, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The rest of the world operates purely in the private sector. He gave the example of the Chinese in Brazil. “Brazil is a very large country, not a country of 60,000 people and yet it has the same dilemma as the Marshall Islands. China became one of Brazil’s largest trading partners in 2010. Chinese investment has strategic consequences because it creates economic leverage, increases inter dependency and expands Chinese influence, especially in the heavy industries -- energy, mining, steel and oil. It’s the same story throughout the continent, in fact it is a world problem.”

Dr. Betancourt shared about the experience in Colombia. “There was no trade or business between Colombia and China but since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in 1980, trade between Colombia and China has skyrocketed. There are investments in the tens of billions of dollars. America cannot compete with the Chinese business offensive. America is bound by a modern form of free enterprise. American investors only go where there is secured financial profit. In the past, the big American barons were not only interested in profits but also there were incentives to build civilizations. Today, shareholders of America and most of the West are only interested in short-term profits. They’re not thinking long-range, but immediate return on the investment. Meanwhile, the Chinese with a mixture of government and "private" investments are looking at the long term, 30, 50 years from now.”

Joseph McColley, a student at Georgetown University asked, “What does America think in terms of a pivot towards Micronesia or the Asia-Pacific region?

Amb. Paul pointed out it was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012, who spoke about a pivot to the Asia-Pacific as America winds down from the Middle East. Clinton attended the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the first ever by a U.S. Secretary of State. The ambassador said, “Certainly from the Micronesia perspective the US is well engaged with Micronesia, however, the Chinese are filling a void and that’s why it has become a major player.”

Amb. Dennise Mathieu – Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, State Department shared her thinking about the situation in Micronesia. “The best strategy by the State Department is a reiteration of our ties to the region, not for just our national interests but for the good of the people. The president and the secretary want to broaden our relationship. It was mentioned that Secretary Clinton was the first secretary of state to attend the PIF. Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior spoke on behalf of the United States at the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this month. She was warmly received by the Marshallese people. Secretary Kerry sent a video address to the event and will meet with leaders of the Pacific nations at the UN this month. He will continue this outreach and engagement in the northern Pacific and nations of the Compact of Free Association. Of course there are inherent interests and domestic problems with regard to sovereign states and the programs, which were not politically designed specifically for sovereign states, but we need to find a balance at the same time. The assistance these states receive is to an extent greater than other individual countries and foreign affairs assistance programs.”

With regard to China, the Ambassador said, “It’s not that we are competing with China. In a sense we are, but we’re also trying to find ways that we can cooperate with China. Back in the 60s and 70s, The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) did have programs to build bridges, roads and to help with their development, but there was a sense that you cannot really have democracy and development without having an educated population, without having a population who really understands values and can move forward with a healthy labor force. Soft power programs instead of hard programs were then emphasized. If we are to work with China, and if their focus is building hospitals, then we will focus on helping to improve the health of the populations and to train their doctors to work in those hospitals.  The outcome will be greater for everyone as well as for ourselves.”

About the financial aspect, the Ambassador said, “Everyone knows about the fiscal problems of the United States and right now we are not a great model because of the budget. At the same time, United States has been called upon and has assumed the security responsibility that other countries are not willing to take on. There is no one else out there in the world taking on this role, which means that China has the resources available to go into countries and build bridges and whatever for their long-term interests while leaving us to do other things. Unfortunately, in my view, some of the countries that are receiving these projects are looking at the very short-term benefits. They’re not looking at when these hotels and infrastructure projects start to crumble in 5-10 years. They are not well constructed. Instead it allows them to show off to their constituencies and bring short-term political gain. Meantime, China has got the contracts to extract resources from these countries for years and years and well beyond the infrastructure contracts that will one day start to crumble.”

Conclusion: Although nature has blessed Micronesia with practically limitless natural resources from the ocean, such as marine products, deep-seabed minerals, and tourism to generate income and trade, the Small Islands Nations face serious challenges because of the global market and climate change. The recommended course of action is to come together and speak as a single voice on the international platform. As Ambassador Paul said, “The nations have small populations. Marshall Islands has a population under 70,000 and Fiji has less than 900,000, but at the end of the day that one vote at the UN General Assembly is just as valuable as a vote by China.” As a long-time trusted ally, the United States should work to foster good governance and economic self-reliance, and at the same time, recognize China’s expanding economic and military presence.

Katherine Magruder contributed to this report.

For a backgrounder prepared by Dr. Dong Woo Kim, Regional Chair, and Gregory Stone, Regional Secretary General, UPF Oceania Regional Office, click here.

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