When a senior U.S. military leader described U.S. national security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region at a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee last Tuesday, he made a point of covering the strategic importance of the U.S-affiliated freely associated states (FAS) and the related Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) agreements that guide those relationships.
The FAS, which consist of three small Pacific island nations (Palau, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI)), are receiving increased attention from China watchers due to their valuable location in the Pacific and the important role the FAS play for the U.S. military.
As Admiral John C. Aquilino, U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, testified before the committee: “The Freely Associated States of RMI, FSM, and Palau, are the cornerstone of the U.S. security architecture in Oceania, linking the United States with the Blue Pacific and Southeast Asia. RMI, FSM, and Palau have the highest military service per capita in the U.S. military, and make significant contributions to our operations.”
He added that “[u]nder the COFAs, the United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters related to each of these three countries, including special and extensive access to operate in these territories and the ability to deny access to these three countries by any third country militaries.”
Admiral Aquilino further explained that the U.S. military “engages in military construction projects throughout the FAS to improve air and maritime infrastructure, enhance domain awareness, and support FAS efforts to protect their economic interests.”
The U.S. Army operates the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands. The Army calls this site “the premier missile and space test range for the Department of Defense.” Extensive U.S. presence on the atoll supports missile testing, missile launches, and science experiments for the U.S. Department of Defense.
In Palau, the U.S. military has begun to install an advanced over-the-horizon radar with an eye towards growing Chinese military aggression. Called the Tactical Mobile Over-the-Horizon Radar, or TACMOR, the sensor station is being installed on the increasingly strategic island to strengthen U.S. air and maritime presence in the Pacific region.
The Federated States of Micronesia has also agreed to develop new U.S. military facilities on its property.
Legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December of 2022 and reintroduced yesterday calls for a new plebiscite in Puerto Rico that includes an option for Puerto Rico to become a new country but with elements of free association. Given the extensive U.S. military presence in the FAS, it is unclear how popular the FAS option would be among Puerto Rican voters, especially in light of the factors that resulted in the U.S. Navy’s departure from Vieques and related ongoing health issues.
As the U.S. builds out its military capacity in the Pacific, it is not assured that the U.S. will have an interest in a similar military build-up in the Caribbean which is the cornerstone of FAS relationships, casting doubt on how generous the U.S would be to a new FAS in this region. It is also unclear how willing Puerto Rican voters would be to welcome the U.S. military back.
Update: At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Armed Services held on Thursday, April 20, Admiral Aquilino added that “the compact agreements are absolutely critical to the defense of the United States.” His comments were in response to Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who questioned the current U.S. policy of barring access to federal program financial support for FAS migrants.