President Hilda Heine joined with Palau and Federated States of Micronesia presidents in a historic meeting with President Donald Trump Wednesday (Majuro date) at the White House — the first time the three presidents from the freely associated states have met an American president as a group.
In lead up meetings with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the presidents from the freely associated states (FAS) listed key issues for action, including improving the long-term viability of trust funds for each nation, extending current provisions of the Compact of Free Association beyond their 2023 expiry, extending health services for islanders who have served in the US military and returned home, expanding US military presence in this north Pacific region, and ensuring islanders who have migrated to the United States are not prevented from obtaining driver’s licenses that allow them to work and contribute to the communities where they are living.Both Palau President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. and FSM President David Panuelo encouraged an expanded US military presence in the Pacific region, while President Heine praised President Trump for being “very proactive” in approving disaster declarations for a region that is particularly vulnerable to climate-related disasters.
In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the four presidents said: “The United States of America, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, as Pacific nations, jointly reaffirm our interest in a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. We recognize our unique, historic, and special relationships, and reaffirm our countries’ commitments to the Compacts of Free Association, resolving to continue our close cooperation in support of prosperity, security, and the rule of law.The US and FAS presidents added: “We resolve to continue developing joint initiatives, both bilaterally and through multilateral forums, such as the Pacific Islands Forum, to tackle the region’s most pressing issues, including responding to natural disasters; combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; advancing economic development; strengthening the rule of law; and supporting the resiliency of the Pacific islands environment.”Although issues between the US and China are currently dominating the Washington agenda, US officials downplayed the issue for FAS presidents’ meeting with Trump. “President Trump is directing, really, an unprecedented level of focus on the Pacific Islands, and that’s in recognition of the fact that the United States is a Pacific nation with immutable strategic, economic, cultural and people-to-people links to these islands,” said a senior Trump administration during a briefing
with news media the day before the unprecedented White House visit. While many of the questions asked by journalists at the media briefing centered on the US-China dynamic in the region, US officials said the White House meeting between Trump and Presidents Heine, Remengesau, and Panuelo was a “reaffirmation of the importance of the region to so many different US interests.”
Trump administration officials described US ties to this region as “seven decades of the familyrelationship.” “While we affirm this alliance, we want to ensure that it also adapts,” said Remengesau. “We would welcome a larger US military and law enforcement presence in Palau where our citizens, including veterans, can take a greater role in this partnership. The Compact will be more effective when we share the responsibilities.” Heine called for action to alleviate the ongoing problem of US law preventing FAS citizens legally residing in the US from obtaining driver’s licenses and state identification cards that negatively affects employment opportunities.“We would hope that the FAS families who choose to live and work in the United States, as provided for under the Compact, are not excluded or prohibited by recent laws such as the REAL ID Act, preventing them from contributing fully within their respective communities,” said Heine. “Likewise, Marshallese citizens who serve in the US Armed Forces and obtain valuable skills and experience should not be discouraged from returning to the Marshall Islands, due to a lack of benefits and services available there.” Heine specifically identified the need for the US to work with the RMI to “improve the viability and sustainability of our Compact Trust Fund with additional investments so that it can achieve its intended purposes. This will be of great benefit to both nations in the future.”
Panuelo, who was sworn into office on May 11 and was making his first official overseas visit as president, confirmed the FSM-US ties. “Our two countries have always shared a close relationship, and I look forward to keeping it that way,” Panuelo said. He added that the FSM intends to seek “an extension of the expiring provisions of the Amended Compact.”
In addition to the meeting with Trump and Interior Secretary Bernhardt, the three presidents met Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan at the Pentagon Wednesday. As with the historic meeting at the White House, this was the first time all three FAS leaders were hosted together at the Pentagon.
Read more about this in the May 24, 2019 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.