A report from the United States Institute of Peace details the impact of China’s influence on nations that are in free association with the United States.
These nations are the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). Each is an independent country with a special treaty relationship with the United States.
The 2022 report – entitled “China’s Influence on the Freely Associated States of the Northern Pacific” – provides insight on matters of geopolitical importance while also creating a helpful summary of the elements of free association, an arrangement that has recently piqued the interest of voters in Puerto Rico unsatisfied with the island’s current territorial relationship with the U.S.
FAS relationships with the United States
Nations in free association with the U.S. give the federal government a very high degree of control over their countries. According to the report, “[a]ll three assign the United States full responsibility for the security and defense of the (Freely Associated States) FAS, which includes strategic denial over land, airspace, and territorial seas; this is the right to deny third countries access to or use of the FAS territories for military purposes and the right to establish US bases and defense facilities in the FAS.”
At the same time, the Freely Associated States have goals and wishes for their relationships with the United States, which may not always be satisfied. “FAS leaders want the United States to put greater emphasis on the issues most important to FAS citizens,” the report points out. “They prioritize personal relationships, building consensus through sustained engagement, and gestures of mutual respect. Fairly or not, they worry about US abandonment and neglect and that the United States does not take their concerns seriously.”
As sovereign nations, the three freely associated states cannot provide US citizenship to their residents. US immigration laws does permit Marshallese, Micronesian and Palauan citizens visa-free entry to work in the states, but they have no easier path to US citizenship than any other immigrant.
“The Marshall Islands are also strongly focused on seeking resolution of the legacy of US nuclear testing in Enewetak and Bikini Atolls.” The United States conducted nuclear testing in inhabited parts of the Marshall Islands, with long-term consequences to the people and the land. So far, there has been no apology and little in the way of restitution. “The legacy of US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands remains a fraught and challenging topic for both US and Marshallese officials that, more than any other issue, threatens to sour US relations with one of the Freely Associated States. The US official position has been that the legal question of compensation is settled and access to US courts is closed, whereas Marshall Islands leaders feel strongly that the compensation provided … was inadequate.” The report concludes that “US officials should acknowledge that a conversation about nuclear testing will need to take place.“
Beyond controversies and insecurities, the legal agreements are set to expire in 2023 (FSM and RMI) or 2024 (Palau) and have not yet been successfully renegotiated.
FAS relationships with China
China has taken advantage of recent opportunities to provide loans and other support to the Pacific region. In the words of the report, “the Pacific Islands offer China a low-investment, high-reward opportunity to score symbolic, strategic, and tactical victories in pursuit of its global agenda.”
Specific opportunities for China include strengthening perceived Chinese power in the Pacific, adding supporters with voting rights in international organizations, diversifying supply chains, and enhancing surveillance and intelligence-gathering capacities.
The report recommends some specific actions on the part of the federal government.
“The United States should establish a recurring strategic dialogue with the FAS,” the authors claim, “at a level of seniority that clearly communicates to FAS officials that Washington views them as important partners.”
The implication is clear: the leaders of the FAS nations do not at this point feel confident that Washington values them as important partners. The report emphasizes the long-standing relationships among the FAS and the U.S. but warns against complacency since China has clearly been working to develop relationships with these nations in recent years.
The report also warns that “US engagement with the FAS is currently defined by a sprawling and decentralized set of bureaucratic activities that undermine US national security interests and weaken the bilateral relationships.” Given this circumstance, the authors say, “the United States should endeavor to speak with one voice—or at a minimum in a well-coordinated fashion—in its engagement with FAS governments.”