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Micronesian leader defends US compact

Saturday 16 April 2016 | Published in Regional


MICORNESIA – Few Australians will have heard of President Peter Christian – the head of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).

To a degree, that will change in June when this tiny northern Pacific nation opens its first embassy in Australia.

And in another first, Christian has given the ABC his only interview since becoming president a year ago.

Correspondent Ben Bohane spent a day with Christian at his office at the FSM’s national legislature in Palikir, the country’s capital.

First though, some local custom had to be acknowledged.

He joined a village celebrating their annual feast of eel and taro – a root vegetable that is a food staple in the Pacific.

There were dances already underway with giggling crowds and then with his speech, he had them all laughing, before pushing on to the affairs of state.

The FSM united in 1979, bringing together the islands of Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae and independence followed in 1986, ending direct US administration.

At 700 square kilometres, its relative land mass is tiny but the marine territory of FSM is massive – more than 2.5 million square kilometres of the North Pacific Ocean.

And, while it has four different cultures and languages, according to President Christian, the FSM has one common imperative – building the economy.

“We’re a small, far-flung country and like other people in Micronesia say, we’re a big ocean state, so the only thing we got going is fisheries,” Christian said.

“We need to develop our fisheries, especially the shore site facilities that can contribute to an increased labour force.

“But also we see tourism as the additional industry that can be developed. It’s clean and it’s viable.

“Our biggest constraint right now is getting an airline system, an air transportation system that is supportive and recognises that they are important to the development of tourism in the area.”

Apart from the economic challenges for a nation of just over 100,000 people, there are succession moves emerging from the islands of Chuuk and, to a lesser extent, Yap.

But the FSM President said unity, taro patches and the country’s fishing reefs were the key ingredients for success.

“There is no possibility that the FSM will break up. Not within my administration,” Christian said.

“My aim right now is to keep the spirit of unity going, and when I go out to the communities, I preach two things – unity and taro patches.

“We need to keep our taro patches clean, healthy and productive because if somebody doesn’t help us with financial assistance we have taro patches, which is the livelihood of the communities. That and our reefs.”

Local frustration has been building with the terms of the Compact of Free Association the FSM has with the United States.

In October last year, three senators in the FSM Congress introduced a resolution to terminate the arrangement in two years, rather than wait until 2023, when it is due to expire.

The move was partly fuelled by Washington’s tardy payments due to the FSM under the agreement.

Additionally, the money can only be used for fundamental services such as health and education, not economic development.

“It’s not about the Compact – it’s about the management of the Compact,” Christian said.

“It’s about the fact that we feel a bit betrayed that the spirit upon which the Compact was built is either unknown to the administrators or is being deliberately ignored and that is where the difficulty comes up.

“But on another level, we have been told that good planning also entails long-range planning.

“Long-range planning is not 2020 to begin renegotiation with the United States, it means starting to talk about what the relationship might be in 2023, today. That’s all we’re asking.”

But Christian remains optimistic.

“I think the Compact is a wonderful relationship between the number one economy in the world and a country that rates nowhere in the economic scale,” he said. “It’s a relationship that transcends just economy.”

Although the FSM has a seat at the UN, under the Compact, the US controls foreign policy and defence.

The US has been withholding funds to several Micronesian nations, including Palau, an island nation which has seen a boom in Chinese investment and tourism.

The FSM’s island of Yap is now being courted by a Chinese conglomerate to develop resorts totalling 1500 rooms, along with supporting infrastructure.

“The management of how this relationship goes, particularly and especially in terms of economic development, infrastructure development, is where we are having some difficulties with the US,” Christian said.

US President Barack Obama has declared himself the Pacific president amid a heightened awareness of the region’s trade and security importance and the growing nuclear menace of North Korea and China’s aggressive territorial ambitions.

“You’re no longer talking about soldiers landing on a beach, you’re talking about seconds within which a missile can traverse the Pacific ocean to hit California,” Christian said.

“So our space between that point of origin and the intended targets really means a lot. It should be very important to the US defence plans.” - ABC