In remarks last Friday, Ambassador Joseph Yun, who was appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations in 2022 and is leading U.S. deliberations with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republics of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and Palau, spoke about updating the U.S. free association agreements with these three countries, describing them as “independent” and “foreign” nations.
Speaking at the Hudson Institute, Presidential Envoy Yun began with a general background of the region, explaining that four distinct areas emerged out of the Territory of the Pacific Islands administered in trust by the U.S. for the United Nations post-WWII. The four ultimately held plebiscites on their current governing arrangements.
The Northern Mariana Islands chose to be a U.S. territory of the United States, the original preference of the U.S. Not wanting to lose strategic control of the other three, the U.S. encouraged them to be sovereign nations but in free association with the U.S. The others – the Marshall Islands, Palau, and what was left of the Federated States of Micronesia – agreed to compacts of free association while attaining, as Yun’s explained, “complete independence.”
In his discussion, Envoy Yun touched on his role as chief negotiator for renewal of certain provisions of the associations. In the arrangements, the U.S. Department of Interior provides financial assistance and some other U.S. agencies operate programs, but Yun noted that relations are handled through the State Department “because [the freely associated states are] foreign.” He further emphasized that “we are dealing with sovereign countries.”
Yun then addressed four core elements of free association relationships:
Sovereignty – Except U.S. Has Military Authority
“They are completely sovereign,” said Yun, but they let the U.S. exercise security rights. This includes letting the U.S. determine access by forces of other nations and locate military bases in the islands. The “strategic denial” exercised by the U.S. covers an expanse of the Pacific from Hawaii to Asia as large as the 48 contiguous United States, including the airspace above the ocean and lands. There is a “defense veto” in which FAS refrain from interactions with other nations that the U.S. says would compromise security.
Citizens of the FAS can live, work, and study in the U.S. without having to get a visa. They are not U.S. citizens or nationals, but they have more access than other foreign citizens to the U.S.
Citizens of the FAS nations have limited access to federal benefits and can experience practical difficulties due to the lack of understanding of their unique rights as citizens of the freely associated states. They can also be deported in the event of criminal behavior. If FAS nationals want to become U.S. citizens, they must go through the same process of naturalization as other foreign nationals.
The FAS receive financial and program assistance. The strategic military importance of the FAS relationships to the United States is a strong motivator for the federal government to provide for the compact nations’ economic welfare and development. The U.S. provides substantial subsidies for the budgets of these tiny nations, with populations ranging from 22,000 people (Palau) to roughly 100,000 (Federated States of Micronesia).
While U.S. military benefits are not an explicit part of current compact negotiations, most current U.S. assistance has finite ending dates and are critical to the U.S. retaining strategic rights. This assistance is set to expire in 2023 for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia and in 2024 for Palau.
Continued federal programs
Freely associated states have access to certain U.S. government programs, such as mail delivery to and from the islands, Weather Service, Federal Aviation Administration and some health, education and other programs. Some of the latter programs are not scheduled to expire in 2023 and 2024.
What does this mean for Puerto Rico?
Some Puerto Rico leaders tout free association, which they call sovereignty in association with the U.S., as a third democratic alternative for Puerto Rico’s political status in addition to statehood and independence. The interview with Ambassador Yun makes clear that there is no third alternative; free association is separate nationhood like independence; just with a non-binding association with the U.S. The word “free” in the name of the status means that either nation can unilaterally end the association.
In choosing to end the island’s current status as a U.S. territory, the people of Puerto Rico could continue to opt for statehood. Or they could, in the words of Special Envoy Yun, choose to transition Puerto Rico to become a foreign country. Perhaps the new nation will for some time be in free association with the U.S., but it would still be “foreign” and essentially “independent,” just as the three nations in free association with the U.S. are today.
Image courtesy of Jeffry Lim