President Donald Trump will meet with the leaders of freely associated states for the first time in Washington D.C. next week to revisit long standing alliances with the Pacific island countries amid China’s expanding influence and growing threats in the region.
Trump will welcome President Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr. of Palau, President Hilda C. Heine or Marshall Islands and newly elected President David W. Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia to the White House on May 21, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a press statement released Wednesday.
“This will be the first time all three freely associated states leaders are hosted together at the White House by a United States president, demonstrating the special partnership between the United States and the FAS,” Sanders said.
Palau, Marshall Islands and FSM are associated with the United States through the separate Compacts of Free Association, which authorize their citizens to travel and work visa-free to the United States in exchange for allowing the U.S. military maintain control over their water and air space and waters.
“The leaders plan to discuss the close security ties between the United States and the FAS, their shared commitment to democracy and the rule of law, and their mutual interest in maintaining a free and open Pacific,” Sanders added.
Beijing has been seeking to build more diplomatic influence in the region by splashing cash and investments in the Pacific islands just as Compact grants from FAS nations are set to expire in 2023.
In a bid to counter China’s aid-based influence, the Trump administration has raised its proposed budget for U.S. territories and Compact nations from $608 million in 2019 to $611 million in 2020.
“The 2020 budget request prioritizes the Department’s mission to fulfill our insular area responsibilities in the Caribbean as well as in the Pacific,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular and International Affairs Doug Domenech said in a statement in March. “The proposed budget represents action to strengthen economic and health capacities in the U.S. territories while also fulfilling U.S. obligations to the freely associated states.”
In FSM, newly elected President Panuelo met with China Ambassador Huang Zheng during a courtesy call on May 14.
“China was one of the countries that never questioned our sovereignty, and we appreciate that,” Panuelo said, reiterating his government’s commitment to One-China policy.
“I really and sincerely wish to thank you for the development cooperation assistance between our two countries,” Panuelol told Huang.
FSM is recipient of China’s largess such the construction of secondary roads in Pohnpei, Chuuk State Government Complex, educational scholarships, and assistance with vessels and gymnasiums, amongst others.
Additional China-funded projects are underway including the renovation of the Pohnpei State Government Complex, and upgrades to Chuuk State’s roads.
“Ambassador Zheng invited President Panuelo to formally visit China and discuss with His Excellency Xi Jinping, President of China, to further discuss how the FSM and China can cooperate on the Belt & Road Initiative, which President Panuelo accepted for a to-be-determined date in the future,” a press release from the FSM Information Service.