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Funding the Pacific partnership, COFA and insular areas

FSM President David Panuelo shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador Joseph Yun after the completion of COFA negotiation in January 2023. Photo courtesy of FSMIS

These Islands By Robert Underwood

Over the years of dealing with Guam’s political status, the island has buffeted between being a non-self-governing territory and a domestic (domesticated?) entity under the United States. Even though it sounds the same, the recognition of Guam as a non-self-governing territory implies some kind of uncertain international standing. It is an international concern to deal with non-self-governing territories.

Guam does have a kind of “international personality” through participation in Pacific regional organizations. In Washington D.C., “international personality” merits a slot in the Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs.

This is not an unusual phenomenon in the Blue Continent. The island entities range from fully independent nations to freely associated states with different arrangements. The New Zealand and the American models are different. I don’t know which one is “freer” or more “associated.” It is clear that in both instances, the freedom to travel to the “other” country is the benefit most utilized by the islanders. Free association is primarily a vehicle for outmigration.

Of course, we still have the territories of larger powers like the United States and France. France’s treatment of its colonies can be extraordinarily flexible and includes references to “overseas country” as well as full membership in the French National Assembly. This is the case of French Polynesia. In the American system, you cannot say “sovereignty” and “territories” in the same sentence. Moreover, you only get partial membership in the U.S. Congress.


In this conversation about the future of the Blue Continent, we have appealed to a unified Pacific islands’ point-of-view. The islands themselves are uncertain about how to implement this. Should they all be members of the Pacific Island Forum? The answer for most is not yet. But the “overseas country” of French Polynesia is a member as is New Caledonia. When Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero raised the issue for Guam, the response was underwhelming. Was Guam going to be a Trojan Horse for the United States?

The meaning of an appeal to Pacific island unity within the ethos of the Blue Continent has yet to be fully understood, let alone fully resolved. Recently, I raised this issue in a Young Pacific Leaders meeting held in Guam but organized by the U.S. Department of State. The State Department tacitly recognizes the existence of a Blue Continent with young people. The youth appeared to grasp the issue as I appealed to the representatives of the “independent” Pacific to be more supportive of territorial participation.

Of course, it resonated mostly with delegates from the territories, especially American Samoa. As we took pictures, they said they were treated differently from others in these meetings. The source of this was the American part and not the Samoan.


This effort at building a regional identity is obviously affected by the ongoing competition between the U.S. and China for the Pacific region’s attention. In September 2022, President Biden offered the Pacific Partnership as the highest-level initiative ever given to the Island Pacific in American history. Objectively, it is true. There were commitments to funding and a more robust diplomatic presence in the South Pacific. This was further accentuated in a December 2022 joint statement between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, which emphasized cooperation on “rules-based international order” and “building resilience” in the Pacific islands. Island resilience is a kind of code for infrastructure projects related to climate change without saying so directly.

Concurrently, the U.S. is concluding the compact negotiations with the three

freely associated states. After some initial hiccups, the process seems almost done. It is primarily a negotiation over money. Between the new funding arrangements for the Compacts of Free Association and the Pacific Partnership, it is time to take stock of where all of this might stand in the U.S. Congress.

Funding these initiatives in the middle of a Republican-Democrat stand-off over the “debt ceiling” seems like a difficult challenge. The Republican-led House of Representatives may not be so friendly to putting more money toward “island resiliency,” although they may be sympathetic to the need to confront China everywhere and anywhere. How these COFA proposals and the Pacific Partnership are defended in the face of a withering congressional appropriations cycle will test the importance of the islands.

Adding a little aggravation to this is the status of U.S. funding for the non-self-governing territories. The proposed budget for the Office of Insular Affairs has declined by 5 percent. Presumably, this was made possible by the elimination of mandatory compact impact aid funding. This connects back to the “migration” benefit of the freely associated states. A place like Guam is just left hanging out, being reminded of its insignificance in Congress and its status as a client of the Office of Insular Affairs.


The Bureau of Indian Affairs budget is slated to increase by 23 percent. The Department of the Interior clearly likes Native Americans, but islanders, not as much.

The U.S. citizens and nationals of Pacific territories cannot catch a break. They are not really included in the Pacific Partnership since they are domestic areas. Let the Department of the Interior take care of you. They weren’t included in the COFA negotiations since they are Americans and represented by the State Department. As it turns out, Interior is more interested in tribal affairs than Pacific Partnerships.

Of course, there is always the Department of Defense, which now stands ready to spend billions on Guam. Compact impact assistance for human migration is clearly not as strong a priority as are missiles. Guam’s “international personality” is propelled by missiles more than by policy. Something just seems out of whack.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to

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