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Guam gets the short end of the stick

These Islands By Robert A. Underwood

The recent approval of the Compacts of Free Association in Micronesia, Palau and the Marshalls has apparently resolved many of the dire circumstances predicted if the compacts weren’t approved by the end of 2023. We even heard predictions that war might break out over Taiwan if the COFA agreements weren’t approved.

The agreement process went into overtime. Now that the compacts have been approved, all three of the freely associated states are again singing the praises of this special relationship with the United States. All three COFA states are again speaking about the solemnity and the mutuality of these agreements and their contributions to Indo-Pacific stability and peace.

In the long run, the delayed action may be forgotten once the funds start going into Micronesian accounts. In the meantime, there have been cries about delay and loss of confidence by various commentators, including the COFA governments themselves, albeit in a muted fashion.     

They seemed to be confident that they would work their way through.

Well, there was some hand-wringing and words of warning. President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands said the U.S.-Marshall Islands relationship was “gradually being destroyed by party politics in the U.S. Congress.” Lots of things are being destroyed by this hyper-partisan collection of yo-yos called the “majority” in the House of Representatives.


Interestingly, the COFA communities in the United States started to weigh in. The voices from Hawaii to Arkansas were loud and clear. They are becoming their own political constituency. Maybe they will be a third force in the implementation and future negotiations if these ever occur again. These communities live in the U.S. as “habitual residents” who do not become U.S. citizens. Many decide the elections back in the “home country” although the Marshall Islands has made it a little difficult to vote in large numbers. Warnings about Chinese influence abounded everywhere.

Of course, hyperbole is the order of the day when dealing with Chinese initiatives in the Pacific. Everybody employs this hyperbole, including the military (actually retired military), conservative think tanks, congressional allies and the COFA states themselves.     

Congressional supporters wrote a letter to Speaker Johnson ominously stating that failure to ratify the compacts would be “the most self-destructive gift the United States could give to China.”

Not to be outdone, supporters of the military buildup in Guahan also use the specter of the new geopolitical realities of Chinese incursions to build support for any kind of military activity on island. Fear of China and unsupported comparisons to Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II abound.

Build, build, build—regardless of the cost to the federal government or to local residents— seems to be the driving conventional wisdom in Guahan.

One of the most fantastic claims was made by Grant Newsham of the Center for Security Policy. He claimed that failure to approve the compacts would cost the U.S. $100 billion annually for ships, submarines, missiles, aircraft and troops to secure the 5.6 million square kilometers covered by the COFA areas. At this rate, the power projection capacity of Guam must be worth at least 50 percent of that amount.

Guahan may be better off engaging in a COFA process, if only it could. For now, the island remains an uninvolved, unincorporated territory.


What all of this means is up to commentators to opine about. Whether their opinions mean anything is questionable. Already, the delays have been used to indicate that the U.S. is not serious about its commitments to the island Pacific. Some have indicated that the COFA process was a test of commitment to the region.

After its passage, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. called it a “win-win” and mentioned increased funding, educational benefits and various programs available for Palauans living in the U.S. He didn’t mention military uses of Palau or the coming of the Peace Corps. These are the things the Americans talk about.

FSM President Wesley Simina talked about the $500 million for the Trust Fund, increased funding and benefits for veterans. He also thanked other donor nations, including China. There is no reason to close the door on future assistance from whatever source. He didn’t mention anything about military uses. These are the things that the Americans talk about.

At the end of it all, the COFA nations look like they got a good deal, and the U.S. is certainly happy to manage the 5.6 million of ocean for a bargain-basement price of a few billion spread out over 20 years.

We shall see what the lessons are for domestic politics within the COFA nations themselves as they come to grips with the details of the agreements and the lack of serious economic development for the future. More largesse from the federal government will just make them end up looking like Guahan and the Northern Marianas.

Looking at it from Guahan, the island was the biggest loser in all of these negotiations. The island was not included in the initial conversations and not consulted during the negotiations. The island’s concerns over “compact impact aid” is dead in the U.S. House, unsupported by the Biden administration as well as a bipartisan coalition of disinterested politicians. Hawaii and Arkansas combined to give COFA migrants “permanent resident benefits” while leaving those same residents hanging in the territories.

Under the Compact Impact Fairness Act, the states and the migrants are treated fairly. The territories are left hanging waiting to figure out whether there will be full food stamp benefits in the Northern Marianas or SSI in Guahan. Let’s see if Guahan can do something about this in the coming Micronesian Leaders Conference in June. In the meantime, I am all COFA’d out.

 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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