“Walk with us”

A streetscape in Ebeye, Marshall Islands

A streetscape in Ebeye, Marshall Islands

Robert Styles

PSC Deputy Director Robert Styles reflects on discussions with Pacific leaders around the impacts of the coronavirus and building resilience. 

Leaders across the Pacific are reflecting critically on COVID-19 and its implications for regional and national security. The Pacific Security College (PSC) is privileged to be at the intersection of a number of these conversations. On Wednesday 7 October 2020, the PSC Board of Pacific leaders sat down to reflect on COVID-19 and the emerging pathways to recovery.

Their insights build on earlier discussions commenced shortly after COVID-19 gripped the region.

Air Chief Marshal (Ret’d) Mark Binskin AC who chairs the PSC Advisory Board, invited the board members to reflect on the long-term challenges arising from COVID-19 and what, in their view, needs to be done to create greater resilience. Three broad themes emerged: geopolitical challenges are magnifying security issues; regional and national responses to COVID-19 require careful coordination; and COVID-19 responses need to be made in concert with other security measures.

With respect to geopolitical challenges magnifying other security issues, Tuiloma Neroni Slade OS, former Attorney-General of Samoa and Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), reminded us that strategic and practical security challenges vary significantly across the region. Many Pacific states have immense economic exclusions zones (EEZs) with highly valued resources. Sixteen countries are UN members with unique political alliances and foreign policy priorities. COVID-19 is just one issue the leaders are addressing. The pandemic is significantly affecting maritime security as well as monitoring and regulatory capacity. Moreover, donor competition is affecting assistance efforts whilst the pandemic has combined with other security threats such as cyclones and economic stability to complicate development agendas.

COVID-19 is not the first external threat to Pacific wellbeing. For example, 315 atomic tests have taken place at 10 different locations across the Pacific with serious ongoing environmental effects. Ms Rhea Moss-Christian, Chair of the Marshall Islands Nuclear Commission elaborated that, like COVID-19, the nuclear tests affect many sectors associated with health, food and human security. She said, “COVID, nuclear testing, maritime security — all require a regional effort to effectively resolve and ensure that lessons are shared”.

We can also draw from the past. It is possible to leverage international and regional expertise and political forums to address security threats. However, care is needed to ensure attention is not diverted from a focus on broader national and regional security issues like climate change. It is also important to ensure national sovereignty and regional integrity are not compromised through external engagements.

Dr Audrey Aumua, Deputy Director-General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, reminded us that the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders are now setting a clear future agenda. The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific has involved inputs from 18 countries across the region. It’s an unprecedented process in the region that is not only strengthening systems complementing the Pacific’s expanded security agenda but is also identifying new priorities for COVID-19 economic recovery.

In regards to the regional and national responses, Senior Fiji Navy Legal Officer Lieutenant-Commander Silipa Tagicaki-Kubuabola, reported on the significant forward momentum within Fiji. The country’s national security strategy was approved on 17 September 2020. It will complement the Fiji National Ocean Policy which is now a platform for inter-agency engagement on complex and interacting issues such as fisheries, transport and transnational crime. Key to these policies and related security initiatives, is the “importance of maintaining sovereignty and the right to control resources and borders” according to Tagicaki-Kubuabola.

The board members stressed there are many players in the region with competing agendas. People are worn out from managing multiple significant security challenges. Regional engagements, especially the growing numbers of digital/virtual meetings, can be burdensome. Pacific leaders are struggling to be “everything to everyone”. Dr Audrey Aumua explained, “investments need to be aligned with what the leaders need, not what donors/NGOs want to deliver. Leaders want to realise impact, mitigate risk and figure out how to pivot into the recovery phase.”

Considering the expanded security agenda and the collaboration required, what priority concerns and opportunities are emerging? Amongst the Board members there were deep insights but also unanswered questions.

It is a massive undertaking for the Pacific to tackle the raft of security problems — health, food, climate, resource security and so much more. “We need to build on what is working at the regional and national level. We need to learn together what collaborative best practice is,” Aumua argued.

Sovereignty needs to be ensured as Pacific states recover from COVID-19. There is a pressing need to secure food supplies and other essential goods, and facilitate responses to ongoing health care needs, including both communicable and non-communicable diseases.

To date there has been relatively little impact on shipping and the movement of goods. This could change. Forward planning is needed to manage possible disruptions in essential supplies. Food security and medical supplies are critical — much more work is required to strengthen value chains. 

Maritime security is also a pressing issue. The revenue from fisheries is important – tuna fisheries alone employ over 22,000 people and generate over US $554 million in revenue. Core challenges include ensuring the security of maritime boundaries and resources, and regional collaboration to maintain one of the healthiest fisheries in the world. Interventions are required to ensure the maritime security of EEZs, the health of fisheries and the reduction of transnational crime.

The board also stressed the importance of human and social development as well as the importance of health and education systems. The number of school closures across the region is enormous, raising questions of long-term impacts, future resources for recovery and the need to focus more on the youth and safeguarding their futures.

Ross Ardern, senior New Zealand diplomat and current Administrator of Tokelau, offered us a final provocative question: “The economic implications of COVID-19 are just emerging in the countries across the region. What does this mean in terms of our long-term security and sustainable development? We need to be prepared for a threefold health, climate change and economic crisis.”

So, what have we learned from these leaders? Their reflections strongly suggest that if national and regional systems are better integrated, the region can build resilience, but more systemic and culturally attuned approaches are needed.

Development programs need to be linked to national priorities and be contextually aware. Like elsewhere there is fatigue across the region — don’t burden the region is one key message; “walk with us, not in front of us” is another.

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