By Brian Harding & Kim Mai Tran —
On August 5, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The visit highlights a dramatic rise in attention paid to the Pacific Islands region by Washington and other outside powers. The choice of FSM, which has increasingly become a focus for Chinese engagement, also showcases how China is catalyzing renewed U.S. diplomacy.
FSM is one of three independent countries in the Micronesian subregion, along with Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, with which the United States is intimately linked through a Compact of Free Association. Under these arrangements, numerous U.S. departments and agencies provide essential services and the United States provides financial assistance, administered by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs. Citizens of the three countries also travel and work visa-free in the United States and serve in the U.S. military at extremely high rates per capita.
The compacts also provide the United States with full authority and responsibility for defense in the three compact states, with the United States enjoying broad military rights and the ability to deny military access by third parties in return. In the case of FSM, the United States has not made significant use of its defense rights, but the ability to deny others access across this vast area between Hawaii and Guam are of high strategic value. Additionally, these waters are close to shipping lanes passing through the South Pacific.
These deep institutional and cultural ties make the United States the most important outside partner for FSM. However, China’s star has been on the rise in FSM in recent years as it has become a major player in the broader Pacific Island region. Among the three compact states, only FSM recognizes Beijing and FSM’s newly elected president, David Panuelo, has been a fervent proponent of Beijing’s involvement in Micronesia. Already, China is engaged in a range of infrastructure projects, including government buildings, roads, and bridges and on August 2, 2019, China donated $2 million to the $636 million FSM Trust Fund, in what appears to be the first contribution from a country other than the United States. This is particularly significant as the United States’ Compact of Free Association with FSM will expire in 2023, unless renewed by both governments and funded by the U.S. Congress, a topic that will be high on Secretary Pompeo’s agenda.
Another issue looming over the future of U.S.-FSM relations is the possibility of one or more of the four federated states within FSM seeking independence. In particular, an active independence push from some leaders in Chuuk, the most populous state, where about half of the population allegedly supports independence, could lead to a new, extremely fragile state that might seek to hitch its wagon to Beijing outside of the compact with the United States, which would have significant strategic implications related to U.S military facilities in the region.
Secretary Pompeo is expected to meet with the governors of the four federated states of FSM – Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae – and with President Panuelo during his visit. He will also meet jointly with Panuelo, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine, and the president of the Republic of Palau, Thomas Remengesau. This meeting comes on the heels of a historic visit the three presidents made to the White House in May, the first time the leaders of the three countries were hosted together. During that visit, the four presidents issued a statement “reaffirming [their] interest in a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific” and “[their] commitment to the Compacts of Free Association.”
Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Pohnpei is one more sign that that Washington has woken up to the reality that the Pacific is an integral part of the Indo-Pacific.
Mr. Brian Harding is a fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @IamBrianHarding.
Ms. Kim Mai Tran is a Research Associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.
Brian Harding is deputy director and fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.