The big news coming from several hours of meetings on Pohnpei Monday between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Hilda Heine and leaders of the FSM and Palau is Pompeo’s announcement that negotiations to extend Compact funding agreements have begun.
The post-2023 period, when US grant funding for RMI and FSM ends, has been a concern of island leadership who have been unable to gain traction in Washington on the issue until recently.
“Today I’m pleased to announce the United States has begun negotiations to extend our respective compacts of free association with each country,” said Pompeo during a media conference in Pohnpei Monday. While the Compacts as treaties do not expire in 2023, most grant funding will end after 2023. For Palau, grant funding ends in 2024.
Pompeo was the first US Secretary of State to visit the FSM. President Heine was joined by Foreign Minister John Silk and Ambassador to the US Gerald Zackios at the meeting, and the trio returned to Majuro with Pompeo on his plane late Monday night. So did US Ambassador Karen Stewart.
The high-level US attention to the three freely associated states — President Trump’s unprecedented meeting with Presidents Heine, David Panuelo and Tommy Remengesau, Jr. at the White House in May, the visit two weeks ago to Panuelo’s inauguration by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, and Pompeo’s visit Monday — come against a backdrop of increasing competition between China and the US for allies and strategic advantage in the Pacific region.
Heine called the meeting with Secretary Pompeo “honest, constructive, and a reminder that the relationship between the three FAS countries is based on shared history, mutual respect and shared principles.” She said RMI looks forward to increasing focus with the US on economic security, climate change impacts, and health security related to the nuclear test legacy.
“Mike Pompeo became the first US Secretary of State to visit Micronesia Monday, as Washington’s signaled a renewed interest in its Pacific allies, no matter how small, in the face of regional competition with China,” reported the Jakarta Post.
Pompeo called the three freely associated states “strongholds of freedom.”
“We want to help nations of the Indo-Pacific to continue their decades long rise and maintain their sovereignty both in the political and economic spheres,” he said. “We know China seeks to engage and to influence this region,” but indicated confidence that Pacific islands would understand “other Pacific democracies, are the best partnerships.”
Pompeo’s announcement that negotiations are starting to address funding issues comes just two weeks after the People’s Republic of China confirmed a $2 million contribution to the FSM’s national trust fund. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this month reported that both the RMI and FSM trust funds are expected to experience years with little-to-no money to fund the governments — a problem that would severely disrupt government services. It also affords an obvious entry point for the PRC, as the $2 million trust fund contributions demonstrates.
US officials made it plain they are moving to counter moves by China in the FAS and Pacific region.
Read more about this in the August 9, 2019 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.