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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Buzzword: Indo-Pacific

“Rebalancing to the Pacific” was tossed around a lot after President Obama announced in 2011 that the United States would turn its attention to Asia Pacific and make the U.S. military presence a top priority in the region. What was touted to be the strategic guidance for military planning became a staple in many defense documents and officials’ speeches.

For laymen, “Rebalancing to the Pacific” is simply understood as the U.S. military positioning in preparation for any possible attack from China and North Korea. On Guam, it was presumed to be related to regional troop alignment involving the relocation of 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

It turns out, nobody had a clue what “Rebalancing to the Pacific” means. Military officials groped for answers when they were interviewed by the Government Accountability Office.

The U.S. government has since retired this vague concept and replaced it with the new buzz phrase: “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” which new documents define as “an ironclad and enduring commitment to a region that spans from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian subcontinent.”

“The American people and the whole world have a stake in the Indo-Pacific’s peace and prosperity,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in 2018 when he laid out the initiative. The initiative focuses on three areas — economics, governance and security.

“Where the ‘Indo-Pacific’ begins and ends, and what it looks like, depends partly on where you are. It’s a term that has quite subtle but different shades of meaning depending on your national or policy perspective,” Brendan Sargeant, honorary professor at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at the Australian National University, wrote in The Strategist.

U.S. Defense officials have made it clear that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is a program that seeks to wrestle against China, whose Belt and Road Initiative builds infrastructure and intends to solidify its clout across the Pacific islands. China’s growing sway over this region triggers anxiety for the United States, which for many years showed its tendency to tune out its Pacific allies.

With the Compacts of Free Association headed for renegotiations, freely associated states are learning to play the game. The Federated States of Micronesia, for example, is hedging its bet. While getting ready to renegotiate with the U.S. on new Compact terms, FSM has been cozying up to China.

The Compacts give the United States control over the airspace and waters of Palau, Marshall Islands and FSM, while in return, these countries receive millions of dollars from the U.S. in financial aid and their citizens are allowed visa-free entry to the U.S. and its territories.

Freely associated states are aware of their own bargaining chips.

Marshall Islands’ newly inaugurated President David Kabua is flexing his muscles. “The economic policy and the foreign policy will be particularly attended to in order for this country to prepare for engaging any new dynamics that may emerge from new initiatives involving anyone of our bilateral friends, or which may be forced on the negotiation table, as a result of unexpected geo-political developments affecting peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region,” Kabua said in his inaugural speech.

As he prepares for the Compact talks with the U.S., Kabua begins drafting his demand list. “Many of the issues we will bring to the table are about the Compact of Free Association. And possibly we will bring some new business to the table.”

The nuclear issue, he said, is among the unfinished businesses that need to be settled once and for all. “The U.S. is such a powerful and prepared-in everything country, they can do everything, including what we may ask,” Kabua said.

Guam, one of the host jurisdictions for FAS migrants, does not have a seat at the negotiating table. “While the compacts help to offset China’s growing influence in the Western Pacific and preserve national security interests, Guam is left to fund the consequences of unmitigated migration. Our current costs are estimated to be at $150 million per year,” Gov. Lourdes Leon Guerrero said in her state of the island address Feb. 24.

The governor has her own list to present to the U.S. “As the Compact renegotiations draw near, I will continue to advocate for several items: reliable screening, which means preventing known criminals from entering Guam; full reimbursement of Compact costs; and greater aid to COFA jurisdictions, so they can employ their citizens in the land of their birth.”

When the Compact talks begin, Guam will observe from the viewing gallery.


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