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Regional cooperation seen as key to engagement in Washington

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Friday 17, 2009) - Although worry about rising sea levels took center stage at the 11th Micronesian Chief Executives Summit in Majuro earlier this week, the need for greater sub-regional cooperation among U.S.-affiliated islands in the north was promoted as essential to dealing with climate change and to gaining greater engagement from Washington.

"We need Micronesian solidarity now more than ever before," said Marshall Islands President Litokwa Tomeing in the opening session. Northern Marianas Governor Benigno Fitial backed this, saying that all U.S.-affiliated islands share many of the same issues. While the Northern Marianas is a U.S. commonwealth, "we’ve emphasized strong regional cooperation," Fitial said Tuesday.

Two summits were held in Majuro this week: the Micronesian Chief Executives, which involves governors of CNMI, Guam and the Federated States of Micronesia with Presidents from the Marshalls, FSM and Palau, and a second Micronesia Presidents’ Summit involving the three heads of state from the freely associated states.

Federated States of Micronesia President Emanuel Mori called for the leaders to advance the aggressive conservation program known as the "Micronesia Challenge" and to take steps to fully establish a Micronesia Center for a Sustainable Future that has been endorsed by earlier summits.

"How do we explain to the world (that we need action) if we don’t protect our oceans and lands (through the Micronesia Challenge)," he asked. Mori said the Center will act as a focal point for identifying long-term funding sources to support a response to climate change problems in this region.

But Mori went farther than this in pushing regional cooperation. In an interview during the summits Mori said he sees cooperation among the three freely associated states as well as Guam and the Northern Marianas in dealing with Washington as key to engaging Washington. He said he will be asking the Presidents to go to Washington as a group later this year to meet top Obama administration officials.

"We can go as a group and impress upon the new administration that we in the Pacific have unique needs and we’d like to engage (with Washington)," he said. "It will be most effective if we all go."

Mori sees numerous possibilities with US relations since President Obama took over. "The attitude of US officials we’ve met so far has been very positive," h e said. "We still don’t know all the players, but the lower level staff are very positive about helping us."

Urging U.S.-affiliated island leaders to speak with one voice for the region, President Tomeing suggested the time has come to develop "a Micronesia strategic plan or framework that captures the priorities of our region." Governor Fitial said he agreed with Tomeing’s call for greater Micronesian solidarity, urging the leaders to "continue addressing these issues together, including relations with the United States."

Climate change issues grabbed a lot of attention at both summits, but leaders also spent time being briefed on and discussing numerous issues, including: a new fiber optic cable that will connect the Marshall Islands and FSM with Guam, delivering broadband Internet access for the first time beginning in 2010; progress in implementing the Micronesia Challenge; efforts to expand Pacific Islands Development Bank loan activity in the region; a regional airline initiative of the CNMI; regional tourism efforts to improve this key source of revenue that has nose-dived with the global economic crisis; fuel and alternative energy initiatives, including options to begin bulk buying of fuel by several nations.

The Chief Executives Summit ended Wednesday and the Presidents’ summit ends Friday.

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