His Excellency George Fraser, Ambassador of Australia, Discusses Foreign Investment, Coronavirus, Australian Bushfires, Scholarships, & More with President Panuelo and Vice President George

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His Excellency George Fraser, Ambassador of Australia, Discusses Foreign Investment, Coronavirus, Australian Bushfires, Scholarships, & More with President Panuelo and Vice President George

PALIKIR, Pohnpei—On February 18th 2020 His Excellency David W. Panuelo, President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and the Honorable Yosiwo P. George, Vice President of the FSM, received His Excellency George Fraser in a courtesy call. The purpose of the meeting was to broadly discuss a series of topics of import to the FSM and Australia, such as agricultural development, coronavirus travel restrictions, Australian scholarships for FSM students, Australia’s appreciation for the FSM’s financial contribution in the aftermath of the bushfires earlier this year, and the date for Ambassador Fraser’s replacement in March.

President Panuelo explicitly solicited the Ambassador’s frank and cordial opinions, noting that one of the reasons for the close relationship between the FSM and Australia is due to mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and development agendas.

The conversation began on the topic of agricultural development in the FSM. Ambassador Fraser highlighted President Panuelo’s keen desire to lessen the Nation’s reliance on imported fruits and vegetables, particularly in light of the FSM’s extraordinarily productive soil conditions.

“If [citizens] wanted to compete with the prices in the supermarkets by growing locally, they could make money,” Ambassador Fraser said.  “[Australia] is interested in doing this work in the North Pacific, but the question is: what would they do? Some examination on what’s possible may be the best input…. If you wish to go ahead, I could mention it to my successor.”

“Absolutely,” replied President Panuelo, who spoke in detail about the need for the FSM to be able to provide its citizens fresh fruit and vegetables. It was argued that this should occur predominantly in the private sector, which spurred the conversation towards private sector development more generally.

“We look very much to seeing a bright future for the FSM,” Ambassador Fraser said, “and we would like to see a greater and more active private sector. I know that we have a responsibility and our part to play in that—I mentioned to the Ambassadors [from the United States and Japan] that we all need to somehow encourage business to come here. And not just extractive business, but business that does something.”

“One of the things that [may be the most helpful to the FSM] would be a unified business code,” Ambassador Fraser continued, speaking in depth about how businesspeople rely greatly on stability and seamless processes. “Companies coming [to the FSM] can make money, but they need to have a fair business system and a unified code that will allow them to work throughout [the FSM].”

“That was one of my agenda items with the Governors,” President Panuelo said, referring to the February 12th Chief Executives Conference. “I want their inputs by the State & National Leadership Conference prior to the [Fourth Regular Session of the 21st FSM Congress]—because we have a pending Foreign Investment Bill.”

President Panuelo and Ambassador Fraser agreed that, should the Foreign Investment bill be voted upon and become law, there is a need for a seamless visa process for people who have a legitimate investment license.

The conversation then turned to economic development more broadly, including how COVID-19 (the official scientific name for the new coronavirus) and the Nation’s travel restrictions are impacting the Nation’s economy. Ambassador Fraser noted that Australia has no complaints about the policies in place, and that Australia recognizes how devastating such a disease could be if it reached the Nation’s shores—however, it was also emphasized that there may be tangible, real-life impact on the Nation’s economy.

“This coronavirus is going to be a big economic issue,” Ambassador Fraser said. “I’ve discussed with [the Honorable Henry S. Falan, Governor of the FSM State of Yap] that…hotel occupancy dropped from 90% to 10%. Do you have any idea about the financial impact [the coronavirus] has been on the country?”

“Congress voted and enacted [Congressional Resolution 21-117] based on the economic impact, and I do recognize that,” President Panuelo said. “We included clarifications for cargo shipping because we don’t want to damage our lifeline. But we had to redeclare the 14-day quarantine because our States are saying that we don’t have the capacity. So, we’re constructing [isolation facilities], conducting [infection control and case management] training, among other measures.”

“I had to make a decision,” the President continued, “on the issue of economic impact and the lives of our citizens. I thought that one takes precedence over the other.”

President Panuelo noted that, presuming that capacity improves, he doesn’t intend to reinitiate the travel restrictions on February 29th unless new information demonstrates it’s in the best interest of the Nation and its citizens.

The conversation then turned to Australia’s appreciation of one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) that the FSM Congress voted to donate in the aftermath of the bushfires that devastated large portions of the country.  “Thank you for the [$100,000] for the bushfires,” Ambassador Fraser said, noting that it’s good to have friends and to show solidarity. “We’re very grateful.”

“We cannot see [tragedies and crises] without expressing our sympathies,” President Panuelo said. “I am grateful that Congress and I are unified in our Micronesian spirit of solidarity and supporting one another. It’s their leadership that allows us to have this conversation today.”

Although the conversation briefly explored other topics—such as the anticipated arrival of the Guardian-class patrol boats, and the Nation’s continued appreciation for Australia’s flagship maritime security cooperation program with Pacific Islands—the final topic of extensive depth was with regards to Australian scholarships for FSM students.

“We’re very pleased that over the past four years we’ve been able to increase the number of scholarships,” Ambassador Fraser said. “Something we have asked, and will continue to ask, is if there are any particular areas of greater need for the Government. We understand that there are needs everywhere, but if it is assessed that [the FSM] needs more of this or that, please let us know and we will provide more scholarships in those areas.”

“Thank you, Ambassador,” President Panuelo said. “That’s noted. I will be instructing [the Honorable Kalwin Kephas, Secretary of the Department of Education] to provide me information on whether that’s something we’ll wish to look into further.”

The meeting ended on a positive note, with Ambassador Fraser expressing his personal appreciation to President Panuelo for his friendship.

Ambassador Fraser’s replacement is tentatively scheduled to arrive in the FSM on March 7th.

Citizens of the FSM interested in studying on an Australian scholarship for a Masters or Doctorate degree are encouraged to visit the Australia Embassy of the FSM website here: https://fsm.embassy.gov.au/or call the Embassy at +691-320-5448.


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