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The hard part of sovereignty

Updated: Jun 27

Pacific Reflections By Gabriel McCoard

Despite the shortcomings of human memory, when I lived in Chuuk, I remember reading a blog entry along the lines of “Why I didn’t Join the Peace Corps” The chief offense: an offer in the politically bland Federated States of Micronesia.

Despite being politically bland, a friend of the blogger was dismissed from an education position somewhere in the FSM for essentially no reason, a political disagreement with someone, or so says my memory.

Welcome to the world of the politically bland.

Or so some thought.

Outgoing FSM President David Panuelo is leaving office with a letter concluding with what appeared to be a scratched-out signature. Part vindication, part spy craft, part warning, part ominous shadow, the 13-page missive unleashed a barrage of accusations against China and Panuelo’s fellow Micronesians.

He then notably proposed a switch in allegiances from China to Taiwan.

China’s crime has been to undermine, or flat-out ignore, FSM sovereignty. Ships labeled as research vessels ply FSM’s waters, international proposals that were not in fact agreed to suddenly were affirmed, and Chinese agents followed him while he was out of the country.


The FSM, against his specific orders, gave in to pressure to approve Chinese-made Covid vaccines, and members of his administration received trips on a private jet and gifts from China-based seafood companies, among his other disclosures.

It's been a while since I’ve had reason to review the laws of the FSM, but apparently, the president’s cabinet does not serve at the pleasure of the president.

The antidote, per Panuelo: the FSM should diplomatically recognize – and actively engage with - Taiwan. He went so far as to disclose a meeting with Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, to quantify what a switch in diplomatic recognition would mean, namely $50 million in cash assistance to start, along with technical assistance and medical referrals to Taiwanese hospitals.

Taiwan would further pick up wherever China left off on construction and economic development projects.

He further divulged the discovery of a recent Chinese whitepaper outlining ambitions for the People’s Liberation Army of China to invade Taiwan.

While the specter of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is certainly grim, especially given China’s less-than-hostile reception to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese aspirations of invading Taiwan are nothing new; while Ukraine certainly adds an enhanced fatalism to the prospect, I suspect such papers have been circulating since the 1940s.


He lays his most damning accusations at the feet of his countrymen, however, in a warning to his successor: “You will have cabinet and/or senior officials who will tell the Chinese ambassador ‘I will help you if help me’ behind your back.”

One can’t be too surprised that island politicians might not be completely forthcoming. Besides, how many free rides – quite literally – have elected officials of every stripe gotten?

Can I say, “coconut republic senator,” or will that offend someone?

“Have you personally received a bribe from the PRC? If the answer is ‘no,’ you are in the minority,” he wrote, while calling for legislation on money laundering, disclosure, greater integrity, and implementing a freedom of information act.

I’m all in favor of laws requiring disclosure, financial transparency, tamping down on money laundering, and giving teeth to laws that seek to punish those that take advantage of the financially vulnerable.

But why was this not accomplished decades ago?

I suppose that is where special prosecutors from across the region come in. In the event of a conflict of interest with the Office of the Attorney General, a special prosecutor will investigate and prosecute crimes, if necessary.

No, that’s not right.

A special prosecutor can be appointed to investigate and, if so called for, prosecute violations of specific laws overseeing public officials, particularly with ethics and financial matters.

But that’s not right either.

The special prosecutor will prosecute specific elected officials and other officeholders after being confirmed to the position by those who could be prosecuted.

To be blunt, you get to veto your possible prosecutor.

There’s definitely no conflict of interest in being able to pick your prosecutor.

I don’t fault coconut republic senators for this. It goes on around the world.

I don’t believe in a distinction between domestic politics and foreign policy. Social media, not to mention minimal investment flow barriers, only confirms this to me. What happens within a nation impacts how that nation acts globally, and vice versa.


This is where sovereignty gets hard.

Even if domestic corruption were to be effectively punished (note I didn’t say prosecuted), and small island developing states were to realize their full economic potential, which would occur over the objections of its own elected officials – is a plane ticket to a conference different from a bribe? - it’s laughable that a country such as the FSM would be able to effectively patrol its full ocean limits.

Panuelo rightfully pointed out fellow islanders; outsiders did not kill Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, after all, but met their fate from hardliners within their own nations.

Nothing happens suddenly. America’s benign neglect certainly left an opening for China.

The FSM, the entire Pacific for that matter, is anything but bland. But that should come as no surprise to anyone who can look beyond bloggers posting pictures of palm trees.

Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. Send feedback to

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