This is a great time to be president of the three freely associated states (FAS).
Presidents David Panuelo of the Federates States of Micronesia, Surangel Whipps Jr. of Palau and David Kabua of the Marshall Islands are sitting at the fulcrum of some significant political and strategic maneuvering in the Pacific. They are the leaders of the nations that have pulled out of the Pacific Island Forum because they felt disrespected. Speaking as a fellow “Micronesian,” I concur.
But there is something even more significant. This is the attention being drawn to the strategic competition between the United States and China. Unless war breaks out in Ukraine, this contest will suck up the attention of the foreign policy and defense agencies and apparatus of the United States. We are already witnessing high-level defense officials and think tanks giving increased attention to the relationship with these three nations.
While this attention is on the ascendency, formal American attention to the three nations seems to be lacking. The United States is supposed to be in the middle of negotiations about the extension of compact assistance to the RMI and the FSM. Palau is supposed to start a year or two later. But other than a few pronouncements, there have not been any formal negotiations.
There is some angst about this among congressional members from Hawaii and the U.S. territories, who have expressed their concern that the negotiations are not being conducted in earnest. FSM negotiator Leo Falcam Jr. has acknowledged that there is a “pause.”
The pause is now moving over to 2022, a full year after the Biden administration took office. Of course, the Trump administration had indicated that all of this would be wrapped up by the end of 2020. In 2019, the Trump administration held a high-profile meeting with the three presidents — all three at once. This seems to be a strange way to deal with bilateral negotiations. Among the leaders who were in that meeting, only Panuelo is still in office.
While members of Congress are excited, the administration doesn’t seem to be. There still is no assistant secretary for Insular Affairs in the Department of the Interior. This office has traditionally been responsible for coordination and information if not policy determination.
Congressional members have indicated that strategic interests and the U.S. global position are at stake. But drawing equal attention in their correspondence is dealing with the costs of the migrants from the COFA states. This is simultaneously a local, regional and international issue to islanders under the U.S. flag.
The Department of Defense is all over the map on the conversation about strategic interests. Discussing potential missile defense systems in Guam and hinting at military positioning in FSM and Palau are part of the avid conversations. It isn’t clear what the COFA nations desire except more financial support.
When asked to discuss strategic issues, the heads of the three governments uniformly identify climate change as their number one threat. They aren’t talking about China or the U.S. They aren’t discussing military assets. They are talking about sea level rising and a bleak future if there is no immediate action. On this matter, it is the one issue in which the FAS states hold the high moral ground, even if they are in a low-lying atoll.
For some cynics, this is just a popular and easy talking point. What else can islanders talk about from a position of strength? They have no military assets; they have few financial resources and they lack real diplomatic clout. But they have legitimate concerns about their existence as islanders. It is hard to dismiss their concerns.
Added to this is the Pacific Island Forum now trying to negotiate the return of Micronesian states. There are formal and informal conversations going on with existing and former leadership. This conversation and controversy enhance the power and role of the FAS. Perhaps they can help explore a different line-up. Together with Nauru and Kiribati, that is a big oceanic hole in the Blue Continent.
They could add Guahan and the Northern Mariana Islands into the mix about the future of the PIF. The French territories are already there.
It will be an interesting 2022 for the FAS. There appears to be lots at stake. But for the first time in a long time, our fellow Micronesian leaders may be in the driver’s seat on the high-stakes issues before us. To date, the United States is not engaged. I am sure that many in the State Department and some in Interior believe that this is primarily a financial deal. At one level, it is exactly that. But the issue defined in money has many implications for the future.
The dignity of the FAS system is at stake. How the U.S. treats them will be seen as part of a pattern of regard or disregard for small island states in the Pacific.
In this conversation, the term “U.S.-affiliated islands” (which apparently includes territories and the FAS) is unfortunate. The increasing inclusion of the FAS in federal programs is attractive and seems right, but the lines between U.S. and international jurisdictions are getting blurred.
It would be tempting for the U.S. to influence the relationships between the FAS and Taiwan and China. Continuing the relationship between Palau, the Marshalls and Taiwan will be seen by some as a strike against China. The FSM already recognizes China.
Trying to influence those dynamics would be seen as demeaning the autonomy of the FAS. There are reasons for these relationships that meet the needs of the respective countries. Respecting those reasons will benefit American influence in the Pacific far more than attempting to manipulate them.
It is an exciting time to be a president in the FAS — perhaps too exciting. I hope they are having conversations with each other and comparing notes. Happy New Year to the Pacific, especially north of the equator.
Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to email@example.com.