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Defense projects a boon for Yap’s economy, but traditional leaders need some convincing

Photo by Pacific Island Times

 By Mar-Vic Cagurangan


The $400 million international airport extension project in Yap represents one of the U.S. Air Force’s largest budget requests outside the United States. The project seeks to open a new efficient airport to accommodate U.S. military operations in the strategically important Pacific region in response to China’s military buildup.


“Development of Yap Airport is essential because there are very few divert or contingency airfields available as potential United States defense sites in the region,” according to the Air Force’s budget request submitted to Congress.

The U.S. military has marked the Yap airport as a strategic spot for training activities.

The proposed military-funded project is not part of the infrastructure sector grant under the Compact of Free Association.

Yap Lt. Gov. Francis Itimai noted that while the funds for the airport extension will be poured directly into the project construction and not straight into the state coffers, Yap would gain from having an adequate port of entry that would stimulate the local economy. “That's a big development for us and the funds that will come in will filter into our economy,” he said. 

With a total land area of 39 sq.mi. and a total population of 11,500, Yap is one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia. According to the latest available statistics, Yap had a GDP of $52 million in 2018. The island state has a relatively small tourism industry.

Francis Itimai/Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

While the state government welcomes defense investments, Itimai acknowledged that the looming military presence in Yap has been triggering community anxiety. “The elders and those who don’t really understand the process are worried,” Itimai said in an interview with the Pacific Island Times during his recent trip to Guam for the Micronesian Islands Forum.

COFA provides the U.S. military exclusive defense rights in FSM’s land, water and air. “People, especially the elders, are saying, ‘once this is expanded, the military is going to come in and chase us out,'” Itimai said, noting that public education is in order.

Although Yap is an autonomous state, the FSM national government has the sole authority to deal with foreign governments. However, Itimai said Yap has the final say in terms of issues affecting the state.

The U.S. and the FSM have yet to sign the airport expansion agreement, but this won’t go through without the approval of Yap’s traditional leaders, Itimai said. “So we're working closely with the national government on this one,” he said.

While the Yap government has jurisdiction over the public portion of the airport, Itimai said certain parts of the land where the terminal is located are partially owned by Yap’s traditional leaders, who must be convinced that the project is good for their respective communities.

Traditional chiefs play an important role in Yap government’s policy-making, including the appropriations process. Yap has two traditional councils: the Council of Pilung, which comprises the chiefs of Yap’s main island, and the Council of Tamol, which comprises the chiefs of the Outer Islands. “Pilung” refers to the village chief, who is the highest-ranking landowner in a village, while "tamol" is a generic term for "chief" used in the outer islands. The councils have the power to veto government policies if they are deemed contrary to “culture and tradition.”

“We have to go through the traditional leaders. We're continuing to meet with the traditional leaders and the villagers to make them fully understand what would be the outcome of these projects,” Itimai said, noting that two parcels of land forming part of the airport are owned by the traditional leaders and their communities. “The agreement that we're trying to reach now is to put on hold the private two parcels because they are not necessarily needed at this moment, but to move on with the public land.”

Photo courtesy of Yap International Airport

The military's airport extension is separate from the ongoing project funded with a $37 million grant from the Federal Aviation Authority, which covers, among other things, the construction of a bigger power vault at the terminal. “This is part of the compact," Itimai said.

The Air Force’s $400 million package includes the extension of the airport's runway, the construction of a staging area for military use, the rehabilitation of the dock area and the repair of the road stretching from the airport to the seaport to accommodate heavier vehicles.

Besides the international airport, the U.S. military is also proposing to repair Yap’s seaport, with plans to widen the channel through the reef and into the lagoon to provide access to Navy ships.

“That's also a sensitive area for us because all the reefs are owned by the traditional leaders in the community. To widen the channel, we must also get their approval,” Itimai said. “That's why we're meeting with the paramount chiefs because if the paramount chiefs say yes, then it's okay.”

While the FSM has a perpetual compact with the U.S., the Pacific nation has diplomatic ties with China. Regional observers speculate on how the U.S. military presence in Yap will play out given that Beijing has set its eye on the island.

Exhibition and Travel Group, one of China’s largest developers, has leased parcels of land for the now-mothballed 10,000-room casino resort project.

Adm. John C. Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, toured Yap's seaport facilities with Theo Thinnifel, the former director of public works and transportation, right, on March 17, 2023. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy/ Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon M. Smith

 On June 3, 2013, the Kaselehlie Press reported that the Yap State Legislature passed a resolution calling for the cancellation of the scandal-ridden foreign investment permit issued to ETG.

The Pilung council at one point negotiated with the foreign investors and one of its members received but refused $3,000 bribe from ETG.

“The debate, which has been very divisive in the country, resulted in the traditional authority of some council members being challenged, with critics wanting only the highest-ranking landowning chiefs to sit on the council, rather than individuals chosen to replace them because of their age or wisdom about traditions and customs,” Steffan M. Krause wrote in a study titled “Political Economy and Intersection of Public and Private Heritage in Yap State” published in 2016 by the University of South Florida.

“(ETG) worked with the people and the landowners to lease the lands for up to less than 100 years,” Itimai said. “The lands are locked but there’s no activity in the area. It’s just dormant and no movement at this time.”

Itimai said he doesn’t see such a land investment causing any trouble. “I don't see any conflict now. There hasn't been any issues or concerns expressed to us.”

During his term as Yap governor, Henry Falan wrote to U.S President Joe Biden, alleging that Beijing had created a “boxing ring” in Yap, “pitting leaders against leaders and citizens against citizens with proposals for large commercial developments that will overwhelm us.” Falan opposed China’s massive development proposal for Yap, a move that cost him his job. He was impeached in 2022 by lawmakers, who were known to be sympathetic to China.


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