Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, second from right, poses for a group photo with, from left, FSM President David Panuelo, Palau President Tommy Remenegsau and RMI President Hilda Heine. Photo courtesy of the State Department.
Leaders of the Republic of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands are well used to seeing each other. They share a neighbourhood in the North Pacific and meet annually at the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit to discuss strategies on key issues such as climate change, fisheries, and their relationship with the United States.
As a group they are referred to as the Freely Associated States, based on their Compact of Free Association with the United States; they are independent countries, but the US provides financial and defence assistance in exchange for exclusive territorial access.
For the first time ever, presidents of all three countries will have a joint meeting at the White House with the US President.
Their latest challenge will take place today in Washington, when, for the first time ever, presidents of all three countries will have a joint meeting at the White House with US President Donald Trump.
U.S. officials, commentators and even Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau are right to point out that this meeting underscores importance strategic location of these countries and geopolitical tensions with China. But more significantly, it demonstrates the resolve of each country’s ambassador and leaders to press for the meeting and make their case at the highest political level. The China angle is just one leverage point and it’s evidently worked in order to get the attention of the US Defence department and the White House, who are not shy to mention it. The meeting is likely to be brief, so each leader will need their elevator pitch ready.
So, what is it that Presidents Hilda Heine (RMI), Remengesau (Palau) and newly-elected David Panuelo (FSM) want from their meeting with Trump?
In the past couple of years in particular, leaders of each country have received the red-carpet treatment from China and Taiwan, with high level visits in their own country or abroad. Comparatively, presidents of the Freely Associated States have been given meetings with the Secretary of the US Department of Interior (as recently as 20 May) or State Assistant Secretary. Given that a US President never has, and never will, participate in the Pacific Islands Forum, Micronesian Presidents’ Summit, or similar Pacific island-centred dialogue, this meeting presents a chance for the US to show respect for each leader and the group as a whole.
The last thing the leaders of the Freely Associated States want is for them or their citizens to be seen as a drain on US resources. In fact, a major goal of the Compact of Free Association was to promote self-sufficiency. But providing stability for their citizens residing in US territories, Hawaii, and on the mainland is critical to getting remittances, educational opportunities, access to health care, and positive people-to-people ties.
While residing in the US, citizens of the Freely Associated States are eligible for some servicesbut are ineligible for most federal, state, and local government benefits such as food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or Medicare, and have had a number of social safety nets reduced. A suite of government services and grants are written into the Compact, but some are funded by discretionary spending, including the more than $30 million provided annually since 2004 to deal with “Compact Impact” for Guam, Hawaii, Commonwealth of Northern Marianas, and American Samoa.
Citizens of the Freely Associated States also serve in record numbers in the U.S. military; taking care of veterans and ensuring access to sufficient care will be a critical issue.
As recently as this month, the US released funding for FSM for “emergency relief and reconstruction assistance” to be administered by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other agencies. The agency has a solid history of providing funding and technical support to the Freely Associated States, each of which face different challenges due to climate change and disaster preparedness.
But the Trump Administration has advocated continued cuts to the State department’s and USAID’s budgets, limiting their capacity in this area. Rather, official policy aims for other countries to share the burden for health and development priorities, reflecting “a new approach toward countries that have taken unfair advantage of the United States’ generosity.”
This article was originally published in The Interpreter/Lowy Institute. Genevieve Neilson is a former Presidential Management Fellow for the US Department of Commerce and served as a Desk Officer for the Freely Associated States at the US Department of State. She resides in Sydney and tweets at @GenNeilson and blogs at www.pacificusforum.com.