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Former FSM diplomat: ‘US must do more to deepen relationship with FAS’

 By Jayvee Vallejera


Despite nearly 40 years of ties between the United States and the freely associated states, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure in the Pacific island countries are still severely inadequate, hence the need for the U.S. to do better on this score, according to a former diplomat of the Federated States of Micronesia.

Joe-Silem Enlet

In an essay published in April in the Asia Pacific Bulletin of the East-West Center, former FSM Consul General Joe-Silem Enlet argues that the decades-long neglect of Palau, the FSM and the Marshall Islands— collectively known as FAS — has created a void of vulnerability that has primed the region for political warfare “and other opportunistic and often malicious activities.”

The think tank U.S. Institute of Peace echoed this observation in an article arguing that financially weak Pacific island states are vulnerable to China. The authors Gordon Peake and Camilla Pohle cited the case of Nauru switching diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China.

With the advancement of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy and its goal of further protecting American interests in the region, Enlet said it is incumbent on the U.S. to live up to its end of the bargain and invest more deeply in relationships with FAS.

That bargain is enshrined in the newly renewed Compact of Free Association that codifies the relationship between the U.S. and the FAS countries, spanning financial and technical assistance, defense, security, education and infrastructure, among others.

Enlet pointed out that the U.S. has enjoyed full military access to the air, land and sea of FAS countries for decades, as enshrined in their compact relationships.

In exchange, he said, the U.S. must do better in building closer ties with these countries, given the strategic importance of this area.


“Ultimately, it will benefit the stability of the Pacific and the world,. Because strong Pacific states mean a strong Pacific, and you cannot really go anywhere without the Pacific,” Enlet writes in the article titled Pacific Perspectives on the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is part of the East-West Center's series on Indo-Pacific affairs.

Toward this end, Enlet argues that the Pacific and its ocean people’s heritage must be featured more prominently in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, which holds that freedom of navigation is important to bring stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific.

He said the idea of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific must recognize the sovereignty of the people of the region who have stewarded the oceans for collective enjoyment and sustainability for generations.

He said freedom of navigation must be tempered by security and must ensure that people’s rights are not neglected. “We face threats from malign actors who have entered our EEZs under the guise of freedom of navigation only to violate the sovereign rights of our states,” he added.

Typical definitions of prosperity in terms of economic measures, such as the national gross domestic product or security in terms of military might and defense also have to be discarded, he said. Instead, the security of the environment and its biodiversity is the priority.

“Pacific nations have identified climate change and its impacts as the greatest threat to our existence,” Enlet said.

He cited climate modeling studies showing that climate change in the Pacific drives pelagic fish stocks further east and away from FAS waters, threatening to disrupt the region's $30 billion fishery industry.

Similarly, ocean acidification, exacerbated by man-made carbon emissions, threatens livelihoods in the Pacific, the former diplomat said.

In this regard, Enlet said this is where the U.S. and China could come together to combat the man-made causes of climate change, which has led to the disruption of natural resources and rising sea levels that not only harm and displace communities but also have dire international legal ramifications, including the shifting of maritime boundaries.


This could potentially reduce the exclusive economic zones of Pacific island nations and limit their access to vital resources like tuna.

“The fact that Pacific people bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change while contributing the least to it ought to stir a sense of urgency and infuriation. In these terms, it is an undeniable injustice,” Enlet said.

In reference to his argument about a deeper relationship between the FAS and the United States that goes beyond just plain economic terms, Enlet said it all goes back to the ocean, since most Pacific Island states require increased capacity to effectively manage their vast ocean territories, not only for conservation but also for sustainable use.

This includes helping FAS countries fight illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, which siphons tens of billions of dollars from legitimate industry and is one of the causes of overfishing, he said.

“Our partners must prioritize technological capacity building as enhancing monitoring and surveillance is critical,” he said.

Building local capacity is key, Enlet said, since helping boost indigenous expertise is a more effective and sustainable measure against IUU fishing.

He also expects the United States to support and implement the recent World Trade Organization agreement prohibiting harmful subsidies in fisheries. The International Maritime Organization has also established an effort to decarbonize the shipping industry by 2050.

“These efforts are ways that the United States can continue to support and join ocean-based strategies for a healthier ocean,” said Enlet, who is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Rhode Island.

The US Indo-Pacific Strategy affirms that the Compacts of Free Association are “the bedrock of the US role in the Pacific” but this must go beyond mere words, Enlet said.

“As a citizen of the FSM, I join with my compatriots in Micronesia and other freely associated states in ensuring this pronouncement develops beyond words and into action. Beyond the financial aid outlined in the compacts, it should also mean a focus on strengthening island infrastructure as well as human development and human capacity," he said.

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