Pacific island countries will be able to access a future COVID-19 vaccine through a new funding mechanism announced by Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, at the Global Vaccine Summit last week.
Fiji, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are all eligible for financing to access a COVID-19 vaccine when developed.
This follows Australia's pledge of A$300 million for Gavi to continue its vital work in providing access to vaccines for countries across the Indo-Pacific.
“Our support to Gavi will also ensure our Fijian vuvale are not priced out of accessing a future COVID-19 vaccine in what will no doubt be a competitive global market,” said Australian High Commissioner to Fiji John Feakes.
Gavi is a public-private partnership that provides access to vaccines for low-income countries and will invest FJD1.8 billion from 2021 to provide access to a range of vaccines for 140 million children in the Indo-Pacific region over the next five years.
There have been no cases of coronavirus reported in the Pacific Islands region, although Australia and New Zealand have reported cases, and in the case of Australia, one death.
However the Pacific region has responded with a series of travel advisories and requirements.
These are constantly being updated, but here is the most recent series of requirements, as of March 2.
Federated States of Micronesia
Nauru has announced entry restrictions for any travellers who have travelled from or through China in the 21 days prior to traveling to Nauru. The same restriction applies to travel from or through areas with a “publicly stated outbreak” or other areas of outbreak concern specified by the Nauru Ministry of Health and Medical Services.
Wallis and Futuna
(Pacnews) A closely watched independence vote in the Pacific state of Chuuk, part of the U.S.-aligned Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), scheduled for next month has been postponed until 2022, the island's Attorney General has told Reuters.
Chuuk's proximity to Guam, an American territory with air force and naval bases, and strategic location in the Pacific had raised the profile of the proposed vote amid expectations it would likely turn to China if became independent.
The island state is the most heavily populated of the four members that make up the FSM and has harbored independence aspirations amid discontent over how funding has been shared.
Chuuk State Attorney General Sabino Asor said in a statement to Reuters that Chuuk would give the FSM more time to “correct some of the deficiencies” by rescheduling the vote to March 2022.
“Let's please wait and see," said Asor, who is leading the pro-independence campaign.
The independence movement has been complicated by debate over the legal mechanisms Chuuk could use to leave the FSM, an independent country backed by U.S. financial and military agreements contained in what is called a Compact of Free Association.
It is the second time the vote has been postponed.
“The people of Chuuk and the people of the FSM are one and the same, and as Micronesians are committed to our national values of peace, unity, and liberty,” the FSM government said in a statement to Reuters.
China has challenged U.S. influence in the Pacific in recent years by forging stronger economic ties with small island nations, and drawing countries out of their long-term alliances with Taiwan.
Though tiny in land mass, Pacific nations including the FSM control vast swaths of ocean, forming a boundary between the Americas and Asia.
Jian Zhang, associate professor at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Micronesian states were ideally located.
“It is in quite a strategic area, both close to U.S. bases, which could provide China an ability to monitor and deter military activity,” Zhang told Reuters.
While the canceled vote will please U.S. interests, which have warned Chuuk against independence, the FSM is also subject to a wider diplomatic tug-of-war.
Parts of the agreement with the U.S. start expiring in 2023, raising the prospect that the island republic could shift its relationship towards Beijing, which has recently ramped up investment and diplomatic resources there.
In December, the FSM government disclosed details of at least US$72 million worth of funding pledged by China for road construction, government building works and other projects after a state visit to Beijing by FSM President David Panuelo.
Four months earlier, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the FSM.
“I'm pleased to announce the United States has begun negotiations on extending our compacts.... they sustain democracy in the face of Chinese efforts to redraw the Pacific,” Pompeo told reporters at the time."
As we enter not only a new year but a new decade, there is much to anticipate in the Pacific islands region.
Elections and domestic politics
A number of countries in the region will have elections during 2020: Kiribati, Niue, Palau and Vanuatu. The lingering discontent in Kiribati surrounding last year's switch in diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China may have an adverse impact on the incumbent government. In Vanuatu, Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabismasmas can point to having served a full parliamentary term as Prime Minister as a reason why he should remain in the top job but that may not be enough. The current premier of Niue, Sir Toke Talagi, has been suffering from ill health recently casting doubt on whether he will contest this year. Meanwhile, there have been calls for more young people to stand for parliament in that country.
Elsewhere in the region, some of what happened on the political scene in 2019 will continue to play out. In Marshall Islands, the Niitjela (Parliament) met last week and elected David Kabua as the new President further to last year's elections. In the immediate aftermath of Solomon Islands' switch from Taiwan to China last year there were indications that Prime Minister Sogavare might face a motion of no confidence. Whilst that did not eventuate in 2019, it remains on the cards for this year. In Papua New Guinea, this year will be crunch time for the Marape/Stephens government. The grace period that protects them from a challenge by way of a motion of no confidence comes to an end in late 2020 and there are already whispers of this paving a comeback for Peter O'Neill who was ousted from the PM's seat in the middle of last year.
There will also be elections in New Zealand, which will be closely watched given that country's closeness to the Pacific islands region, and the centrality of the Pacific Reset to the Ardern/Peters government's policy platform. The incumbent, Jacinda Ardern, was named Islands Business' 'Pacific Person of the Year' for 2019.
There are also significant elections taking place at sub-national level. In Vanuatu, the SANMA provincial elections taking place this month will be closely watched to see if they cast any light on what we can expect in the general elections in March. In Bougainville, there will be elections for President and government of the autonomous region. These elections will be heavily influenced by the results of last year's referendum on independence. However, there is currently some debate as to whether constitutional arrangements should be modified to allow the current President, John Momis, to run for another term. If this is what is to happen, the elections may need to be delayed.
The last couple of years has seen a proliferation of policies, programs and photo opportunities as established and emerging Pacific partners seek to (re)establish their influence in the region. This is expected to continue through 2020, including by way of high- level visits to the region. For example, President Emmanuel Macron will visit French Polynesia in April. This is significant given France's displeasure at the territory having been reinscribed onto the UN's Decolonisation List.
The impacts of Solomon Islands and Kiribati switching their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to the People's Republic of China will continue to be felt during 2020. We have already seen some developments with the visit of President Maamau of Kiribati to Beijing where he met with President Xi Jinping and signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative. Whilst the Taiwanese government has expressed confidence of the continuing relationship with Marshall Islands, Taipei will be watching President Kabua's early movements closely and has already announced a high-level visit to Majuro to help keep this relationship on track. Taiwan now has four allies in the region (Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu) and will continue to expend diplomatic and political capital to avoid losing any of them during 2020.
Independence and self-determination
Work will begin on the negotiations between the Bougainville and Papua New Guinea governments further to the result of last year's referendum which saw 97.7% of those who voted opt for independence. This will have to be ratified by the Parliament of PNG, under the terms of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. Positions on the future of Bougainville vary among PNG parliamentarians, including PM Marape's suggestion of 'economic independence'. Moreover, that agreement does not provide a timeline for how long this process should take. There will need to be a lot of work done around managing community expectations and keeping the flow of information moving in order to avoid frustration.
In New Caledonia, the second of a possible three referendums on independence from France will be held on 6 September. In 2018, the result was much closer than many had predicted with 43.6% voting in favour of independence, exceeding the 30% that some had been predicting.
After some considerable delay, the people of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia will hold an independence referendum in March.
The question of self-determination for West Papua and addressing issues of alleged human rights abuses by the Indonesian state will loom large during 2020, particularly during the meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders in Vanuatu. At last year's meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders Vanuatu lobbied successfully for the issue of West Papua to be given more prominence in the final communiqué than had been the case in the preceding couple of years. This includes a strong signal from leaders that they expect the government of Indonesia to facilitate a visit to the region by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner
for Human Rights, in order for her office to report to leaders when they meet this year in Port Vila.
Meanwhile, in a region dominated by relatively young countries, Fiji will mark its 50th anniversary of becoming independent this year and Vanuatu its 40th.
We have already seen a change of leadership at the oldest of the region's peak bodies, the Pacific Community (SPC). Dr Colin Tukuitonga was replaced as Director-General by Dr Stuart Minchin late last year. The meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders to be held in Vanuatu in August will be Dame Meg Taylor's last as Secretary-General. By convention, it is Micronesia's turn to nominate the person to take on this position. The front runner is Gerald Zackios, the current ambassador of Marshall Islands to the United States.
There will be ongoing work to further develop and embed the 'Blue Pacific' as a unifying narrative that speaks to the needs and aspirations of all members. However, this will take place in a context where there are multiple pressures on national governments, in domestic as well as foreign policy spheres. Divergences of approach when it comes to climate policy will continue to be a significant fault line at the meeting of PIF leaders. Vanuatu, the 2020 host, has already made it clear that the primary focus for that meeting will be climate change.
This item was first published on the DevPolicy blog of the Development Policy Centre, Australian National University