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Congress Considers U.S. Military Rights under Free Association as China Threat Grows

A new Indo-Pacific Task Force established in the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee held a hearing today on how the Compacts of Free Association support U.S. interests and counter the influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

“The U.S. has vital security and economic interests throughout the Indo-Pacific region, particularly amid rising competition with the People’s Republic of China,” the committee wrote in the announcement of the hearing. “The importance of the Freely Associated States (FAS) for the U.S. cannot be overstated given the proximity to the U.S. homeland areas and the broader geopolitical context.”

The concerns of the task force are clear. “Beijing has sought to take advantage of the relatively weak economies and governance structure of island nations in the region. Through offerings of economic aid and infrastructure development, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has leveraged its resources to shape political outcomes and perceptions of the U.S. in the region while waging political warfare to gain undue influence and/or destabilize the FAS,” explained a Committee memo.

“This isn’t just about U.S. interests, but about the interests of the people who live in the FAS,” said Rep. Amata Radewagen (R-AS) in her opening statement. Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) brought this point up again later, asking how the U.S. can balance the needs of these sovereign nations with the defense and security interests of the United States.

COFA agreements

The United States has compacts of free association with three Pacific Nations: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Palau. The financial provisions of the compacts are set to expire this year (Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands) and next (Palau). Congress is currently working with the leadership of the FAS to renegotiate and renew these agreements.

These agreements, all of which cover countries in the Micronesian region of the Pacific, include some economic support from the United States and minimal federal programs but no access to federal entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.  The free association relationships are primarily characterized by the unilateral right of U.S. national security in the region, which, as witness Colonel Albert Short pointed out, exists even outside the compact agreements.

In other words, U.S. military authority is set to continue while economic assistance is up for renegotiation.

Colonel Short, who was chief negotiator for the last compact negotiation involving RMI and the FSM, further explained that the United States has the right of “strategic denial,” which he defined as “the ability of the United States to foreclose these islands to any third party.” He instructed the Members of Congress on the Task Force that this right will continue even if the COFAs are not renewed, describing the access and right of denial of access by others as “a unilateral right.”

He said that the COFA nations “are obligated to cease and desist from any action that the U.S. unilaterally determines is prejudicial to our defense and security.”

In his written testimony, Colon Short was clear and direct on several points regarding the scope of U.S. military power in the freely associated states:

  • [The U.S. has] the right to request the Micronesian government to cease and desist from any action that we unilaterally determine is prejudicial to our defense and security responsibilities in their domain.
  • [The U.S. has] provided a security guarantee to Micronesia much more all-encompassing than we have for any other ally, including NATO.
  • [The U.S. has] never had to invoke our defense prerogatives in the Freely Associated
    States, however, with the ever-encroaching influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) we
    cannot foreclose or forecast the use of this authority in the future.
  • The Micronesian States are sovereign. They conduct their own foreign affairs, and domestic activities and govern themselves with the one exception that the United States is totally responsible for their security and defense. They are members of the United Nations and in that context have been very helpful to the United States interests in the UN and elsewhere.

Several speakers mentioned that the United States has the right to establish military installations in FAS, and that the U.S. has done or will do so in each of the three nations.  The details of the compacts are negotiated between the U.S. and the sovereign COFA nations, and can be unilaterally ended by either side at any time.

“Although there is currently bipartisan support for renewing the compacts,” said Rep. Sablan, “There is no easy way that our nation will be able to maintain our influence in what is becoming an increasingly strategically important and contested area of the world without continuing our partnership with the [Compact of Free Association] COFA nations.”



U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-AR) said bluntly, “The PRC is an existential threat to the United States.” He emphasized that the concerns of the task force center on the Communist Party, not the Chinese people. He described the compacts of free association as “crucial” in working against “the PRC’s malign influence.”

Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) reminded listeners that the relationships between the U.S. and its territories and the FAS are mutually beneficial, especially in light of the increasing global power of China.

Short said the same, pointing out that “the FAS serves as a bulwark for our defense and security concerns in the North Pacific. It protects our vital sea and air Iines of communication to Asia.”

Dr. Lum of the Congressional Research Service reported that China has provided millions of dollars of support to nations in the region, but described their influence as limited. Two of the three FAS have recognized Taiwan. Dr. Lum described “pressure” placed by the PRC on these nations in an effort to sway their attitudes toward Taiwan.

“The PRC intends to break the island chains and control them,” said Col. Grant Newsham, another witness, pointing out that “COFA agreements can be terminated.” Newsham encouraged the establishment of additional military bases on the FAS islands, saying, “We should expand the U.S. military presence.” He suggested that China has more influence than it should in the FAS, “because they’re there.”

“The PRC doesn’t play by the rules,” said Short, and the FAS governments are vulnerable because of their economic positions. “The PRC uses a multifaceted approach to gain their objectives.”

FAS relationships

Some Puerto Rican leaders are supporting free association as a political status for Puerto Rico.  The issue of U.S. military authority in the FAS has been absent from the discussion, however, with no certainty that enhanced U.S. military access and even control would be accepted by the people in a freely associated Republic of Puerto Rico.

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