In the wake of Cyclone Pam in 2015, Bethan Greener and I argued for the creation of a Disaster Response and Coordination Unit within the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. After Category 5 Cyclone Winston devastated parts of Fiji last weekend, the need for greater regional coordination and cooperation in disaster preparedness and response is all the more apparent. This means harnessing the opportunity presented by disaster diplomacy and establishing an inter-regional coordination and cooperation body akin to the Forum Fisheries Agency.
Cyclone Winston is the second strongest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. After two weeks of build up, the cyclone cut a swathe across the Fiji Islands killing at least 42 people. The Fijian Government has been commended for its preparedness which was a contributing factor in reducing fatalities. When the cyclone made landfall on Saturday, over 700 evacuation centres had been established, a curfew was in place, and all leave for military and police personnel had been cancelled. The Government has since declared a State of Emergency as recovery and reconstruction begins.
In response to Pam, Fiji’s National Disaster Management Minister Inia Seruiratu told the Fiji Times that, as a key player in the Pacific Islands Development Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group, Fiji had a responsibility to its Pacific neighbours especially on humanitarian grounds.
The disaster provided an opportunity to reset regional cooperation. New Zealand and Fiji took the opportunity to engage in some quiet diplomacy. A RNZAF Hercules transported Fijian disaster response personnel, including military engineers, health professionals and supplies, to Vanuatu, and Foreign Minister McCully called the cooperation ‘a positive development that reflects the steps we have been taking to reengage with Fiji politically and militarily.’ Similar hopes were held for the Australian-led Operation Pacific Assist.
Unfortunately, the good will didn’t last. At the Port Moresby Pacific Islands Forum in September 2015, climate change dominated talks as Pacific Island leaders sought – and failed to achieve - a unified Forum position in the lead up to the COP21 Paris talks. The obstacle to consensus was New Zealand and Australia’s refusal to meet Pacific demands to restrict global warming to 1.5 C° through emission reduction targets. This put New Zealand and Australia in conflict with the neighbourhood and raised questions over how serious Wellington and Canberra are about the sustainability – and survival – of Pacific island states. I suggested then that New Zealand’s regional credibility was at stake. Fiji, of course, did not attend the Forum citing objections over New Zealand and Australia’s undue influence in the regional organisation. PM Voreqe Bainimarama has made the climate change discord a deal breaker, claiming Australia has put its economic interests first and that the 'lucky' country is determined to stay lucky at the expense of its unlucky neighbours. Without genuine commitment to climate change mitigation, Operation Pacific Assist and the like are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. For this reason, climate change and disaster response are intrinsically linked to current efforts to strengthen regional governance and regional security architecture.
Foreign Minister McCully flew out of Suva at the end of last week having signed off on a Development Cooperation Arrangement worth $33 million. The reinvigoration of defence and security ties was also on the table and this will likely come under increased scrutiny in the wake of Russian-Fiji defence ties and concerns that Australia and New Zealand are losing strategic relevance in the region.
It is in the area of disaster response that Australia and New Zealand can rebuild relations with Fiji and deepen security and political cooperation within and across the Pacific Islands region. As Greener and I recommended last year, if Australia and New Zealand are serious about building the capacity of Pacific Island states to respond to natural disasters such as Cyclone Pam, extending key defence cooperation arrangements such as the FRANZ Arrangement and the Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group, to include those Pacific Island states with defence and police forces, is a critical step forward.
Creating a Disaster Response and Coordination Unit is also essential. We suggested it fall under the directive of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, but it could be physically housed at the Blackrock Integrated Peacekeeping Centre in Fiji with a mandate to work with the Pacific Islands Development Fund to ensure the participation and contribution of civil society and community.
This sounds complex because it would be. But the benefits for regional governance would be significant and there is precedent. The approach of the Pacific Islands states on fisheries management has been, for the most part, bold and bent on strengthening regional cooperation. As Jenny Hayward-Jones has noted, at last year’s Forum leaders agreed that a joint task force of regional agencies with fishery responsibilities should lead a program to increase sustainable economic returns, and tasked ministers to evaluate regional monitoring, surveillance and compliance, with an emphasis on sharing technology.
The same level of commitment must be applied to regional disaster preparedness. Cyclones Pam and Winston are not anomalies. Coupled with frost (unheard of) and drought in Papua New Guinea, floods in the Solomon Islands, and other natural disasters, it could not be clearer that cooperation and collective action is critical.
Cyclone Winston, like Cyclone Pam, heralds a new era of disaster diplomacy in the Pacific. Disaster diplomacy is concerned with how disasters impact and influence cooperation and conflict. It recognises that disasters rarely occur in a political vacuum and, in the case of Fiji, Cyclone Winston, could be a catalyst for better relations between Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. Moreover, because militaries and other security forces provide a critical response capability, the potential for disaster diplomacy to strengthen regional security governance is also of significant benefit. Because the rise of military actors taking the lead on humanitarian action is contentious, it must be balanced by the inclusion of civil society and sub-regional organisations such as the Pacific Islands Development Fund.
For New Zealand and Australia, this is a moment to be seized. Both New Zealand and Australia have consistently provided emergency assistance to Pacific Island states affected by natural disasters. The challenge for Wellington and Canberra is to use this tragedy to deepen the partnership with Fiji beyond Cyclone Winston and lay down the foundations for sustained regional cooperation and coordination.
Anna Powles is Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University.
Photo credit: New Zealand Defence Force