When Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, welcomed her counterparts for the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting late last week, improving responses to disasters in the region was top of the agenda.
“Over the next two days, foreign ministers from Pacific island countries will discuss how we can strengthen our coordination and improve how we prepare for and manage natural disasters in this region,” Bishop said. “We will focus on practical ways to achieve this, including harnessing the private sector and improving the role of women in responding to natural disasters.”
Experiences and lessons learned from Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and Typhoon Maysak in the Philippines will play a valuable part in discussions, and the meeting will look to establish opportunities for initiatives that will build resilience and mitigate effects of disasters in the region.
In a statement released following the two-day meeting, Bishop said the countries present had “committed to strengthening a pool of Pacific-based disaster management experts in the region to assist with nationally led planning and response efforts.”
These include looking at ways to better partner with the private sector following a disaster to quickly re-establish communications, assist in the provision of food and logistics, and stimulate rapid recovery of markets will be investigated, alongside efforts to improve the international engagement of the member nations.
The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat will put together a proposal for disaster response, which will be presented to its Post-Forum Dialogue partners in September, along with key items for discussion.
But undermining all of this work has been the contentious plan by Fiji to exclude Australia and New Zealand from the architecture of the Pacific islands region, a stance that is said to have frustrated discussions and progress at the forum.
The Fiji-led Pacific Islands Development Forum held its inaugural meeting in 2013 with the aim to implement green economic policies in the region. Still in its infancy, the PIDF proposes to include China and India at the expense of Australia and New Zealand.
Fiji’s concerns with Australia and New Zealand has affected its relationship with the Pacific Islands Forum to the point that Fiji will not hold talks Dame Meg Taylor, secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat; the next PIDF meeting may also likely go head-to-head with September’s Pacific Islands Forum gathering in Papua New Guinea.
“Most don’t see sense in Fiji’s position,” Charles Lepani, Papua New Guinea’s high commissioner to Australia, told Devex. “Australia and New Zealand are the biggest donors in the region. The other nations are reluctant to move away from the existing structure.”
Papua New Guinea considers the creation of PIDF “unnecessary,” given that China and India are already Post-Forum Dialogue partners.
“If Fiji wants to bring in other dialogue partners, they are welcome to join the dialogue partner group,” Lepani told Devex. “There is no need to form a new organization when they can be part of the existing arrangement.”
Australia’s stance on climate change and the Abbott administration’s lack of support for climate change mitigation projects are at the heart of Fiji’s concern — its islands are greatly at risk of sea level rises, coastal erosion and weather-related natural disasters.
While Papua New Guinea sees climate change as an important concern for the region, it believes these concerns should be raised in bilateral discussions.
“PNG’s position is that if Fiji has problems with Australia and New Zealand, they need to deal with it separately,” Lepani said. “PNG advocates for climate change mitigation but deals with this bilaterally.”
In response to Fiji’s growing criticism, Bishop reiterated Canberra’s 200 million Australian dollars ($150 million) contribution to the Green Climate Fund.
“Australia’s announcement of a $200 million contribution to the Green Climate Fund has been well received internationally and particularly amongst my Pacific island colleagues,” she told ABC radio Friday. “And we have a seat on the board, so as a Green Climate Fund board member, Australia will advocate for the interests of Pacific island nations. We have offered to be the Pacific’s voice on the board and I’m confident that we will be able to have an influence as to where the funding is directed.”
As chair of the forum for the next 12 months, Papua New Guinea will have opportunities to highlight key issues of importance in the region, including infrastructure, health, education and the environment.
While they are hoping the next meeting of the PIDF occur before September gathering, conflicting dates may simply see Fiji excluded from discussions with Post-Forum Dialogue partners, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Japan.
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