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FAS negotiations with China, Compact impact in the background, nuclear issues in the foreground

These Islands By Robert Underwood

The FAS negotiations with China, Compact impact in the background and nuclear issues in the foreground

In Micronesia, we live in an important part of the world. For islanders, our importance is tied to notions of homeland, families and the physical relationship to the islands themselves.

For others, our importance lies in the struggle for influence and strategic advantage. It is not a new story, but in 2022 the story is about China and the United States.

In Micronesia, we don’t all have the same relationship to the United States nor China. As a territory of the United States, Guahan cannot have a relationship with China because it is “owned.”

Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, as freely associated states, can have relationships. Two decided to have relationships with Taiwan instead. Moreover, all three have defense obligations to the United States.

In Micronesia, we don’t really have relationships with each other except through China or the United States. Migration to Guahan is allowed by the United States.

There is almost no migration among the three FAS; they don’t have offices in each other’s countries. Their relationship with each other within the region seems to be almost via the American connection. Island leaders will say this is not true, but the realities of trade relationships, assistance, migration patterns and military presence say otherwise.

In Micronesia, there is a Micronesian Islands Forum, which succeeded the Micronesian Chief Executives Summit.

Members include the leaders of Guam, the CNMI, Palau, the Marshall Islands and the FSM and its states, Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Yap. Many of the resolutions are about asking for more money and programs from the United States. Major political or social issues seem to be avoided. They last met in July 2019.

The United States’ negotiations with the FAS on the renewal and revision of the compacts’ funding provisions are drawing major attention. Of course, the primary factor is the Pacific-wide series of Chinese initiatives to enhance their strategic position and weaken the American presence. Kiribati and the Solomon Islands recently signed agreements to facilitate the possibility of a Chinese military presence.

One response is for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) to study China’s influence on the FAS. USIP is a congressionally funded organization, which is independent of the State Department but offers timely studies on U.S. relations with the rest of the world. I was a part of the recently released report and served as a co-chair.

The report announced concern with China’s initiatives, but mostly included recommendations to strengthen the relationships as being “interdependent” in nature. It also recommended facilitating stronger intra-regional Micronesian relationships with the territories and the need to address Compact-impact aid. In reality, it is not at the foreground of the document.

The preponderant message is that signing an agreement is necessary for both parties. Military facilities will be built in the FAS outside of Kwajalein. There will be increases in financial support. Perhaps the most important point is to see the FAS-U.S. relations as a model for the rest of the Pacific.

While there is no direct threat from China to enter the region formally, the way the United States treats the FAS will serve as a model of how America sees the Pacific islands. If they are treated as vassal states, then all the rhetorical flourishes in the world about “respect” and “regard” won’t mean much. If they are treated respectfully, the future for the U.S. in the rest of the Pacific could be more amicable.

This is not to disguise real problems. The Marshall Islands is insistent on dealing with the nuclear issues left over from conducting tests in the islands during World War II. The total tonnage of the testing in the Marshall Islands is over 100 times that which occurred in Nevada. Yet, over $2 billion has been paid for Americans to be compensated for testing inside the U.S. The Marshallese are supposed to be satisfied with $150 million from the previous settlement. Even accounting for citizenship, it is hard not to see the imbalance.

The Eighth Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting with President Biden was scheduled toward the end of September. This would be the first meeting at this level for the island nations. Simultaneously, the White House was slated to release the U.S. Policy Toward the Pacific Islands. The tone of these meetings and the issues identified as critical to the U.S. in the policy document will be the test of sincerity and acknowledgment of the Pacific islands’ view of these multi-lateral relationships.

The United States should forge a Pacific island presence in collaboration with all Pacific island states in the promotion of a free, independent and sovereign Indo-Pacific. The division of the Pacific into spheres of influence with Australia, New Zealand and France cannot go forward.

We should have spheres of collaboration in which the Pacific island voice is prominent. The United States should provide a common test of sovereignty to the independent Pacific and the colonial Pacific as well. Perhaps that is a bridge too far. But it is the bridge to a free, independent and sovereign Pacific Ocean region worthy of the name “Pacific.”

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

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