Cook Islands PM asks partners to get serious about debt and climate financing as economic ministers meet

Mark Brown receives a tabua as he is officially welcomed to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. PIF Secretary General Henry Puna looks on. Photo: PIFS

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown says if the region’s donor partners are serious about helping Pacific economies grow and recover, they “have to be serious about looking at changing the rules around financing, and debt management.”

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Chair was speaking to Islands Business as Forum Economic Ministers meet in Suva today.

He notes that many PIF members have come out of COVID with increased debt, with repayments set to spike in five-to-six years as grace periods end. and says partners should “allow us to minimise the debt repayment periods over a staggered period of time without putting pressure on governments and economies to meet their debt servicing costs, at the expense of other areas that need financing.”

He also wants these donors to get behind the Pacific Resilience Facility, the regional financing facility designed to help Pacific nations build resilience in response to climate change.

That fund has a goal of US$1.5 billion, and Brown says the US government’s US$2 million pledge towards it, “will help build up and strengthen this particular facility and add some credibility as a viable instrument for donor countries for funding it, to address climate issues,” Brown says.

But he says the Facility would benefit from more high-level support.

“What would be useful is to get the likes of the World Bank to provide assurance over this particular modality that we’ve got in place, to give assurance to donor partners that if the World Bank is supportive of a facility like this, then surely there should be no excuse for them to be able to use it as a means of getting resourcing to those countries that need [it].”

Speaking at a welcome ceremony earlier this week at the Forum Secretariat, the Chair referenced the Forum’s 2050 strategy, saying: “The Cook Islands would like to see Pacific Partnerships for Prosperity that will realise new finance flows into the region for climate change and weather ready investments; progress gender equality; reinvigorate the Rarotonga treaty for a nuclear free Pacific; strengthen cyber security; build scientific knowledge of our ocean; eliminate plastics from our environment; and address the challenges of labour mobility and climate mobility.”

Geopolitics and Pacific priorities

Brown says the positioning of the Pacific as “an area of competition between the likes of China or the US and the more traditional partners, but it would indicate to me then that some more traditional partners are not listening to what Pacific Island countries need, and what their development priorities are.”

He says while there are increasing concerns around security in the region, Pacific countries are concerned about economic and climate security, “and the sooner our development partners can understand and recognise that, and provide a means for us to be more economically secure, to be more climate resilient and climate secure, the less of a concern they will be around other security concerns that they are raising in terms of the increased presence of some of the donor countries in the Pacific countries.

“Some of these donors, the new and emerging donors  like China, like India, now Korea, Japan, many of these countries have been in the region for decades now. The fact that the likes of the US have not been present in the region in any substantive way, for a number of years, it shouldn’t be seen that Pacific countries are leaning to these countries or putting allegiances to these countries. Pacific countries are looking at who is willing to come in and provide assistance to meet our development agenda. To me, that’s pure and simple what it’s all about.”

Fukushima

The Forum’s members continue to consider two potentially divisive issues, the likely imminent release of treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power facility in Japan, and seabed mining. Last week, Fiji’s Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka said he accepted the reassurance of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) that the discharge from Fukushima would be safe, to the consternation of the Opposition FijiFirst party and local civil society organisations.

Officials from the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) recently visited Cook Islands to brief Brown and other Forum members. The Forum Chair says, “I think all of our countries are capable enough to be able to read the report and the science behind it, to make their own determinations. From our side. The assurances provided by the IAEA gives us that comfort, that Japan’s proposal will not cause damage to the ocean, and that measures are in place to monitor that.”

Brown adds that while the IAEA considers the proposed discharge as safe, it is also establishing an office in Fukushima to monitor the activity “so that if there is anything untoward in terms of their monitoring, that program can be stopped.”

The IAEA has also offered to establish formal engagements with the PIF member countries to enable ongoing discussions and engagement on nuclear safety and other areas under its mandate.

Seabed mining

While countries such as Nauru and Cook Islands are studying the feasibility of harvesting seabed minerals within its waters, other PIF members are taking a much more cautious approach. PM Brown says this will be an issue for discussion when he hosts November’s Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting.

“At the Leaders Meeting my job will be to present this to our member countries, to our leaders. And on the basis of the Pacific way of respecting the sovereignty of each country, we shouldn’t be publicly undermining what one country is doing, to try and promote your own agenda.”

He says this is an issue where the sovereign independence of Pacific Island countries should be respected as paramount.

“There are countries that have taken the position against any activity to do with the seabed, and there are a group of countries within our Forum who have actively engaged in activities related to the seabed. And what our position is, that each country should respect the decision or the position of each country that has taken whether it’s against it, or whether it’s for.”

He likens the issue to fisheries management in past years.

“Some of our countries have a very strong policy about excluding any commercial fisheries in the EEZs, while some of our Pacific countries are very dependent on fisheries revenue for their economy. But as a region, we’ve been able to manage our fishing so that it’s well monitored, it ensures sustainability of catch, and also ensures a fair return to the Pacific countries compared to what it was even 10 years ago.”

Brown says countries like Cook Islands have taken a precautionary approach to their seabed minerals programs, “gathering data and information, a large body of knowledge, to be able to determine whether we take the next steps towards harvesting and extracting those minerals. Until such time, none of our countries that are involved [are] engaged in any mining activities or exploitation activities.

“At this stage. We’re all involved in exploration activities under the principles of the precautionary approach. Of course, we’re in principle with the environment first and foremost in our minds, a good robust regulatory framework to ensure sound monitoring and operations in the seabed. And I think that really is where we are now.”

The official opening of the FEMM begins at 9am.

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