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U.S. Military Authority in the Freely Associated States

In a recent article in Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), author Edward Hunt reports that “U.S. officials are laying claim to the large oceanic area in the central Pacific Ocean that is home to the compact states,” and questions the true scope of U.S. power in the region.

Hunt is referring to U.S. authority in the three freely associated states (FAS), which have signed bilateral agreements known as “compacts” and are located in the Pacific Ocean near the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands as well as the Philippines (formerly a U.S. territory). The map below shows the region.


Does the U.S. own the Pacific?

“Now that they are renewing the economic provisions of the compacts of free association with the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and the Federated States of Micronesia, U.S. officials are insisting that the compacts provide the United States with exclusive control over an area of the central Pacific Ocean that is comparable in size to the United States,” writes Hunt in FPIF.

Where does this idea come from? There are plenty of statements this effect.  To begin with,  in July 2023 testimony, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations Joseph Yun told Congress, “We control essentially the northern half of the Pacific between Hawaii and Philippines.”

U.S. diplomat Jane Bocklage has reinforced this view in testimony to Congress, in which she explained that  “[t]he compacts do give us full defense authority and responsibility in those countries and provide our ability to strategically deny third country military access.”

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) further stated at a recent Senate hearing that Compact of Free Association [COFA] relationships “allow us to deny access to any potential adversary in an area of the Pacific comparable in size to the continental United States.”

As noted by Hunt, Defense Department official Siddharth Mohandas claimed at the same Senate hearing that “the United States maintains unfettered and exclusive access to the area.” “We have the ability to deny foreign militaries access and the ability to operate in the exclusive economic zones of the Freely Associated States,” Mohandas stated. (Written testimony is available here.)

GlobalChange calls the area shown on the map extending all the way to Hawaii the “U.S. Pacific Islands region,” and Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst and expert on Indo-Pacific security issues at the Rand Corporation, a U.S. government-funded think tank, recently elaborated on this concept in Foreign Policy, explaining “Beijing knows that those COFAs provide the U.S. with basically unmitigated access to that area of the Pacific, so they have been trying to loosen the screws on those COFAs, though unsuccessfully to date.”

It’s easy to see where the impression that the United States is claiming the entire region came from. A counter position Hunt explains in FPIF argues that U.S. authority only extends to the  individual islands and their 12-mile territorial waters, but no one disputes the extensive U.S. military authority – and responsibilities – in the freely associated states.

What are the U.S. rights?

The COFAs provide two important rights to the United States:

  • The defense veto, which the Congressional Research Service’s defines as there ability to “block FAS government policies that it deems inconsistent with its duty to defend the FAS.”
  • The right of strategic denial, defined by the GAO as “the ability to prevent access to the islands and their territorial waters by the military personnel of other countries or the use of the islands for military purposes.”

U.S. military presence on the islands is clear to any visitor. The U.S. military is installing its new, earliest-warning radars in Palau.  The Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site is located at the U.S.. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.  U.S. military publications call the test site “the premier missile and space test range for the Department of Defense.”

As Yun explained in a Voice of America interview, the U.S. “really [has] a number of key advantages” through the COFAs.

“These countries have opened their land and seas to us,” he elaborated, “so we have built a number of military facilities in this region.” Noting U.S. military presence on Kwajalein Atoll and in Palau, Yun pointed out that “not only do we have existing facilities, our agreements allow for additional facilities in these countries.”

What’s the reality?

The freely associated states have no military of their own. The United States provides for their defense and has broad authority over national security and strategic matters in all the FAS. The RMI’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site and a new cutting-edge U.S. radar in Palau anchor the region.  The U.S. may not have ownership, but in reality the U.S. military has authority in the area that is home to the three freely associated states.


Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy under Creative Commons license

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