How free is ‘free association’?
One afternoon as I was preparing to move to Palau, I uncovered in my local library a copy of “Embattled Island,” one of the few works that chronicled the island chain’s transition from the world’s last trusteeship to an ostensive sovereign.
This tome detailed the murder, suicide, riots, power agreement fiasco that almost bankrupted the island, and rounds of contentious declarations about the islands being nuclear-free, all of which eventually led to the Compact of Free Association, which led to the construction of the road around Babeldoab, named “Compact Road.”
I thus understood that the “compact” in Compact Road referred to how it came to be built and not to describe the road’s size, although I was amused at my at-home-friends’ confusion about the road being small or somehow tightly constructed.
I came to know the Compact Road quite well, being one of the few who drove it on a near-daily basis to the capital, a trek that even the legislators and judges avoided. The road was new at the time, in good shape, with a smooth surface except for the axle-breaking gap at the causeway north of the capital.
At the same time, I kept hearing talk about “Compact Renegotiation,” a term I have come to despise for its brutal inaccuracy. As I have ranted before, the compacts themselves are not subject to renegotiation unless the nations at hand – the U.S., Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands – announce that they want to withdraw. The critical terms, U.S. military access to the land and sea territory coupled with open immigration and employment rights in the U.S. for citizens of the aforementioned Micronesia nations, remain intact regardless of money.
The real negotiation has always been about what financial assistance the U.S. would give.
When I first arrived, I was naïve enough to wonder why continued financial support would be needed when the original assistance was, to my understanding, to help Micronesians develop their own economies.
Oh, how naïve I was.
As is now public knowledge, the first two weeks of 2023 brought news that the U.S. had reached an agreement in a new round of compact funding both for Palau and for the Marshall Islands.
To be specific, the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding with both Palau and the Marshalls over compact funding. How much funding has not been particularly emphasized, but from reports, Palau will receive $800 million over 20 years, and the Marshall Islands will receive $700 million for a “repurposed trust fund.”
Palau’s $800 million comes after rejecting America’s initial offer, which was twice the original amount.
What a “repurposed trust fund” for the Marshalls means has not been made extremely clear as of yet.
The U.S. and Palau, per the U.S. State Department press releases, will affirm a “close and continuing partnership” that is “reflecting our consensus reached on levels and kinds of future U.S. assistance to be requested for Palau’s economic development,” to further a “shared vision for a strengthened and lasting partnership that will continue to benefit both nations and the entire Pacific region.”
America and the Marshall Islands, home to numerous U.S. missile defense test sites, are “affirming our close and continuing partnership and reflecting our shared understanding reached on levels and types of future U.S. assistance to be requested for the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” (as opposed to the Pacific), and will confirm “the shared desire to strengthen the special partnership between our nations.”
All this affirmation and confirmation must get exhausting. Not to mention that the funding must get through the U.S. Congress, and members of Congress are generally not prone to approve anything favored by a president of the opposing party.
Why not be blunt about it?
China’s capabilities have forced America to take the Pacific seriously while giving Micronesia something to negotiate over.
I’ve already described the compacts as diplomatic afterthoughts. The U.S. has taken the Pacific for granted, and Micronesians have used the immigration provisions not to take their own societies seriously.
As for the Compact Road, as time went by, the road started to show signs of age pretty quickly. Within a year, plants started to encroach. A massive rainstorm ripped out a section. Roads need to be maintained, regardless of where they are.
While I was never able to confirm it, I was told the hairpin turn beyond the airport was the result of a disgruntled engineer taking revenge for being fired.
And my library’s copy of “Embattled Island?” It disappeared after I read it.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. Send feedback to email@example.com.