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  • The Region in Review:International Issues and Events, 2016
  • Nic Maclellan (bio)

Debates over climate action, West Papua, fisheries, and trade continued as a feature of regional affairs in 2016, often dividing Pacific governments and their international partners. The election of Donald Trump as US president in November set the stage for these divisions to continue, given Trump's statements during the election campaign on climate change and America's new directions in foreign policy.

Other global events during the year—including the Brexit referendum in June, international movement of refugees and economic slowdown in China, Russia, and India—will have significant regional implications. Even as vibrant Pacific diplomacy saw advances on climate, oceans, and fisheries policy, the new era of international uncertainty creates problems for Small Island Developing States (sids).

Leadership changes in the United States and Europe are transforming relations between allies, creating clashes between European Union (EU) partners and sowing doubt about international treaty commitments on trade, climate, development funding, and security. That's bad news for smaller developing nations, as the proverb suggests: "When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers."

Although regional organizations found it hard to forge consensus on divisive issues, island nations still advanced the regional agenda in the United Nations. Countries like Fiji are increasingly striking their own path and seeking new alliances, which in turn bring complex international conflicts into regional organizations. One example during 2016 was the debate over self-determination in West Papua, which has brought divisions to both the Pacific Islands Forum (pif) and Melanesian Spearhead Group (msg) that consensus communiqués cannot paper over.

Beyond the human and economic cost, climate change and natural disasters are also contributing to broader strategic changes in the region. After Cyclone Winston in Fiji, Australia and New Zealand deployed warships and helicopters for post-cyclone relief, China and India provided funding, and Indonesian soldiers rebuilt schools, highlighting how environment issues are interconnected with wider geopolitical shifts.

Throughout the year, governments, regional organizations, and nongovernmental organizations addressed the diverse economic, environmental, and social impacts of climate change with research studies on agriculture and forestry (spc 2016), coastal and oceanic fisheries (Fache and Pauwels 2016), natural disasters (World Bank 2016), and climate finance (Maclellan and Meads 2016). A United Nations Environment Program report in May estimated that the cost of adapting to climate change in developing countries could rise to between us$280 billion and us$500 billion per year by 2050, a figure that is four to five times greater than previous estimates (unep 2016, xii, 42).

As with Cyclone Pam in 2014, [End Page 322] Cyclone Winston in 2016 brought home the importance of disaster preparedness. Overnight on 19–20 February, the category five cyclone hit Fiji's northern Lau Islands after causing extensive flooding in Tuvalu and other neighbors. While Fiji's capital was largely spared the worst effects, there was significant damage in the north and west of the country.

In May, the Fiji government issued an official post-disaster needs assessment (Government of Fiji 2016). Nearly forty thousand people required immediate assistance following the cyclone, with 30,369 houses, 495 schools, and eighty-eight health clinics and medical facilities damaged or destroyed. In addition, the cyclone destroyed crops on a large scale, including economically vital sugarcane. Causing nearly f$2 billion in damage, this one disaster compromised the livelihoods of nearly 540,400 people (62 percent of Fiji's population).

At every possible opportunity during 2016, Pacific leaders stressed that industrialized nations need to move beyond the targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) President Hilda Heine told the UN General Assembly (unga) in September: "We need to do more to increase ambition, on mitigation, on adaptation and on finance. We must take every opportunity we can to stay below [the] 1.5 degree limit needed for our survival" (Heine 2016).

For years, Pacific governments have been urging donors to reduce the many barriers that limit access to financial resources to respond to climate change. This message was echoed by Oxfam Pacific as it launched new research on "climate finance after Paris," highlighting the need for predictability...


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pp. 322-339
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