South Pacific's Vanuatu seeks stronger ties with Turkey
The South Pacific nation of Vanuatu is seeking opportunities for more cooperation with Turkey, primarily in the fields of the economy, education, and culture, according to the country's founding leader.
Ati Sokomanu, Vanuatu's former president and the only one to serve two terms, made the remarks in an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency in Istanbul.
The statesman was in Turkey for last week's summit of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya.
Sokomanu said Turkey can help his country a great deal in social development and education. "Economically and politically, Turkey is a very big country, it has also an ocean but not like we have in the Pacific," he said.
Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Vanuatu, a remote country over 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles) from Turkey, accelerated in 2013 with the opening of Vanuatu's Honorary Consulate in Istanbul, which is represented by Honorary Consul Mehmet Atar.
Since then, the two countries have cooperated in many areas, especially in education and culture. The country has also diplomatic missions in China, the U.S., Belgium, Australian, and New Zealand.
Referring to a program launched in 2014 enabling a number of young people from Vanuatu to study in Turkish universities in Istanbul, the capital Ankara, and Izmir, Sokomanu said it is a big chance for the country's young population to be educated in Turkey.
"We thank the government of Turkey for giving us this opportunity. People will be educated and they will know each other more in their own traditional way of living. We learn your way of doing things and you learn our way of doing things.
"And this is something which we appreciate very much and we look forward to developing," he said.
-RED CROSS/RED CRESCENT COOPERATION
Sokomanu, the current head of Vanuatu's Red Cross, said his island's Red Cross Society wants to build a close relationship with Turkey as a potential partner in the Middle East.
He said they developed good relations with the Turkish Red Crescent during the Antalya meeting. "We're still developing our Red Cross, while here you have millions of volunteers and members."
"So Turkey is really advanced and with the help you give us, we think we can develop our branches on the island," Sokomanu said.
Telling how, according to the UN 2016 World Risk Report, Vanuatu is the world's highest-risk country in terms of natural disasters, Sokomanu said the country frequently suffers from cyclones, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.
"We're now coming to cyclone season, from November to next April. We have also volcanic islands, and recently one of them erupted. We had to move all the people off the island."
"Climate change is another problem. Sometimes some of the islands are beginning to disappear because of the rising sea level. That's a big problem," Sokomanu said.
Vanuatu currently has an estimated population of 270,000 living among the 83 islands of its archipelago. The country, which gained independence in 1980, is divided into six provincial government territories.
Turkey is also committed to helping Vanuatu improve its natural disaster response capability, according to Turkish Foreign Ministry.
In 2015 Turkey sent more than $150,000 to Vanuatu to help the nation recover from Hurricane Pam, which left thousands of people homeless and killed many others.
As the 180th-largest export economy in the world, Vanuatu has a close economic relationship with Pacific countries, especially Australia, one of its important economic partners.
According to International Trade Center (ITC) figures for 2015, over half of Vanuatu's exports are frozen fish, and 18 percent are marine and fishing vessels.
Turkey is Vanuatu's fifth-largest export partner with 6.4 percent, after Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, according to ITC figures for 2016.
Sokomanu said Vanuatu is growing and slowly building up its economy, mostly focusing on the agricultural sector.
"We have a very good minister now. He is very enthusiastic about producing new crops so that Vanuatu can become self-sufficient," the former president said.
Sokomanu said mutual visits could strengthen economic and cultural ties between Turkey and Vanuatu.
"I think what is needed is for the governments to have more talks," he added.