The $700 billion 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, signed by President Trump in mid December, calls on the Department of Defense (DOD) to investigate the growing role of China in former US territories in the Pacific. That is a recognition both of the islands’ importance to US global strategy, as well as the latest indicator that America’s decades long relationship with its former dependencies is a partnership under stress.
Strung across the Western Pacific, today’s Republic of Palau (ROP), Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) were liberated from the Japanese in the Pacific War and governed by the US as a UN authorized “trust territory” until the early 1980s. Since that time, these sovereign nations have enjoyed a unique status of “Free Association,” with the US, which provides for their defense as well as sending US bilateral aid that sustains public sector driven economies in the isolated, under-resourced, islands and atolls. Locals can, and in large numbers do, enlist in the US military.
The Compacts of Free Association (COFA) also provide easy entry for islanders coming to study, work, or simply live in the US. Their “eligible non-citizen status” affords them most rights, privileges -and even entitlements- otherwise reserved for native born Americans.
Because of their strategic location at the crossroads of the Pacific, the islands have a history of foreign rule, changing from Spanish to German to Japanese to US hands over the first five decades of the twentieth century. Today they are a defining feature of the Chinese “Second Island Chain” strategic concept of area denial, just as they once comprised the outer ring of imperial Japan’s similar pre-war “Line of Advantage.”
While DOD planners have long sought to control, or at least deny others access to, the islands, in practice US development policies have been criticized by Congressional watchdogs as wasteful, shortsighted, and ineffective. US funding, small compared to US foreign aid provided to other nations -but massive when tallied on a per-person basis for the tiny islands- mostly consists of block grants overseen by the Office of Insular Affairs at the US Department of the Interior.
Critics maintain the monies don’t always build local capacity, but rather tend to foster dependency by sustaining public services (and jobs) year-to-year. That has lead to frustration, even resentment, on both sides. Increasing aid and investment by the Chinese, on the other hand, is given with few obvious strings attached, and framed as a way for islanders to trade in “U.S. government handouts, which are scheduled to end in 2023 [for Micronesia and the Marshalls,] for the wide-open promise of Chinese-style capitalism.” The massive increase in migrants from these Freely Associated States (FAS) to Guam and Hawaii are seen as an indicator of the lack of educational, employment, and healthcare opportunities throughout the FAS.
“Congress and the Administration are to be commended,” said Neil Mellen, founder of Habele, a US educational nonprofit operating across Micronesia. “America is best served when her allies’ support comes from a position of strength, sovereignty, and real partnership, rather than mere dependency. Careful examination of our nation’s track record in the post-war Pacific, as well as the increasingly caustic role played by others, is long overdue.”
DOD Budget Sec 1259D -- "Study and assessment of United States security and foreign policy interests in the Freely Associated States of the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia."