The Federated States of Micronesia has flexed its muscles as an independent country in recent weeks. The country remains Covid19- free and refuses to allow FSM citizens who are stranded in Guam to return home.
The FSM even kept the U.S. Ambassador to the FSM from returning to Pohnpei. The FSM even canceled the Christmas Drop to isolated islands. Next time you listen to the Air Force song (“off we go into the wild blue yonder” and “no one can stop the U.S. Air Force”), remember December 2020. The FSM did stop the Air Force. At least they stopped the C-130’s from going there.
President David Panuelo is the force behind all of these decisions. He seems to do so with clarity and firmness. While he comprehends that he leads a small nation, he is fully aware that he is in charge of a sovereign entity. He can exercise full authority over entry into his country, make pronouncements on important matters and make state visits to other countries.
Last week, he gave me the opportunity to ask questions about the current state of affairs for his country. He answered questions, discussed his experiences and revealed his perspective on the FSM today and in the future. He did so firmly, but with the characteristic friendliness and respectful demeanor that is part of most successful Micronesian leaders. Being direct is not incompatible with being friendly or, in this case, an important ally for the United States.
He is completing one phase of the Compact negotiations with the United States under the Trump Administration. It didn’t stop him from extending his congratulations to President-elect Biden after the latter’s victory in November.
Even after he was invited to visit President Trump and had the honor of being visited by the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Palikir, the capital of the FSM, he did not hesitate to make the strongest denunciation emanating from our region about the Capitol riots and sedition, which occurred on Jan. 6 of this year.
Immediately upon watching the events in Washington D.C., President Panuelo wrote on behalf of the people of the FSM. “The people and government of the Federated States of Micronesia woke up this morning of Jan. 7, 2021, to watch in abject horror as President Donald J. Trump openly solicited acts of domestic terrorism against the people and government of the United States of America.”
He also referenced the FSM’s tutelage about democracy under the United States, FSM participation in the U.S. military and his own American education. He accused Trump of endorsing fascism.
By comparison, the Palau statement (issued by Ambassador Hersey Kyota) seemed tame and was focused on some misguided person flying the Palau flag during the riot. At least, he didn’t use it to attack the police.
Panuelo is fully cognizant of the size of his country and the importance of our region in the ongoing competition between China and the United States. I asked him if he felt like the FSM was a pawn, an independent actor or an ally of the United States in this economic and strategic competition. He says he recognizes his country’s responsibilities under the Compact with the United States and the “enduring partnership.” But he insists that he doesn’t feel sandwiched between the two giants.
The FSM has bilateral relationships with each country separately and deals with each one in the context of what is beneficial to the people of Micronesia. They have technical and economic assistance relationships with China and a Compact with the U.S., but the FSM will resist “arm-twisting” in dealing with either nation. Panuelo is very clear on demonstrating their sovereignty and their independence.
I asked him to contrast his visit to Beijing to meet with President Xi and to Washington D.C. to visit with President Trump. He said that in Beijing, the highways had been cleared of traffic for his official arrival. He spent one hour with President Xi and they had an official dinner. In Washington D.C., he got about five minutes with Trump in the Oval Office. They then retired to the cabinet room to have a meeting which included the presidents of the Marshall Islands and Palau.
I don’t think this should sway any leader away from their national interests. But China clearly realizes the importance of the FSM in a way which the U.S. might be taking for granted.
In fact, Panuelo insisted on making it clear that the deal with the U.S. is not a “handout” but a “fair deal.” He hates it when people tell him “to not bite the hand that feeds you.” I told him that I have heard the same retort when I criticize the federal government. I reminded him that neither Guam nor the FSM is an animal to be fed by the hand.
But he did make a cutting remark which I can’t disagree with. He says he needs to guard his independence jealously. He says some nations in the South Pacific think they are “puppets” of the United States. He says he wants to make sure that the FSM can’t be treated as a “territory.” I added sardonically, “you mean, like Guam.” We both had a hearty laugh.
The biggest issue for the future is climate change and he will be relieved when the U.S. rejoins the Paris Climate Accord under the new Biden Administration.
In his meetings with the Trump Administration in the past, he had been advised not to discuss climate change. In his meeting in Beijing, he did raise climate change and touched on human rights issues. He subsequently received a cable from the U.S. State Department that lamented his lack of emphasis on human rights but said nothing about climate change.
It is pretty obvious that being president of a small country offers very big challenges, especially if it is the FSM. It not only sits between China and the United States, it is a federation of four states. He sometimes reminds his fellow Pohnpeians that in carrying out his duties, he doesn’t see Chuukese, Pohnpeians, Yapese or Kosraeans. His patriotism toward the concept of an FSM nation and people is remarkable and engaging. I hope it is infectious.
He uses “sovereignty” well. It is difficult to figure out whether it is the sovereignty that enables and motivates him or whether he is just an adept user of the status of independence, no matter how small the nation.
Others in FSM history have occupied the same position and didn’t make similar pronouncements. We should all admire his clarity. But there are still the details of funding under a new Compact to be negotiated with the Biden administration. There is also the relationship with the territory of Guam. I hope he remembers to treat us not as a sovereign equal, but certainly not like a territory. He could treat us like a good neighbor.
There is an American adage that might be appropriate here. Good fences make good neighbors.
Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.