What will it take for the United States to start taking more interest in Micronesia?

China, it seems.

In the latest development signaling that nation’s overture to the region, President Xi Jinping on Friday held talks in Beijing with the visiting president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo. According to Xinhua News Agency, the two leaders called for “joint efforts to advance bilateral ties and better benefit the two peoples.”

That’s the China-controlled news version. Here’s the take from NBC News: “Without firing a single shot, China has gained a major foothold in a strategically important island chain in the western Pacific that is considered vital to the United States military security.”

Panuelo’s state visit is not unprecedented. The FSM — the national government of the island states of Pohnpei, Kosrae, Yap and Chuuk — has had diplomatic relations with China for 30 years.

President Donald Trump met with (from left) Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo and Palau President Tommy Remengesau at the White House in May 2019. US Embassy Kolonia/White House

But the FSM, along with the republics of Palau and the Marshall Islands, has had a special relationship with the United States for much longer.

All three nations were the sites of major battles with Imperial Japan — notably Peleliu, Chuuk and Kwajalein — and there are to this day still rusting remnants of World War II on many islands and at the bottom of lagoons. There is also lingering harm from the 67 nuclear tests in the Marshalls conducted in the 1940s and 1950s.

Those close relations continue through the Compacts of Free Association, the treaties with the three Micronesian nations that give the U.S. control of the defense of 2 million square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (or 3 million square miles, when Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are included).

Panuelo’s state visit with Xi, however, illustrates how geopolitical forces are shifting. As Civil Beat reported, there is pressure on the Trump administration to act expeditiously and renegotiate COFA before the funding in the agreements expires for the FSM and RMI in 2023 and for Palau in 2024.

The United States and the three compact nations should begin those discussions now, but not merely as a signal to China that this area of the Pacific remains important to America.

The defense provisions continue, after all, and while China is building and fortifying artificial islands in the South China Sea that look an awful lot like many in Micronesia, it will not be able to do that in the Central Pacific unless for some reason a compact nation breaks its formal ties with the U.S.

The core of the American relationship with Micronesia should thus be one of mutual respect and support that honors our decades-long relationship.

That’s why any treaty extension must require that the U.S. continue offering economic, educational and medical assistance to Micronesia, and to sufficiently reimburse Hawaii, Guam and other U.S. territories that spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to help COFA migrants who live there.

To that latter point, U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Tulsi Gabbard have asked the Trump administration to fully reimburse Hawaii for the cost of providing some $200 million annually in public services to migrants from Micronesia. Guam is also home to tens of thousands of immigrants from the COFA nations and has struggled to support them.

Earlier this month, our representatives and two U.S. senators insisted that the federal government reimburse Hawaii for $17 million in lost funding blamed on undercounts of the state’s COFA population over the past five fiscal years.

Which leads to another point: Those two senators, Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, in July reintroduced the Covering Our FAS Allies Act, which would reinstate Medicaid coverage (also known as Med-QUEST in Hawaii) for citizens living in the United States under the compacts. (FAS stands for “freely associated states,” another term for COFA citizens.) Cruelly, Congress eliminated that humane coverage in 1995.

While U.S. funding for the COFA nations expires in a few years, the privilege of visa-free immigration to the U.S. and its territories continues.

To the former point — the one on economic assistance — the FSM and the RMI are moving toward self-sufficiency, but their economies are relatively poor and their resources finite — which helps explain the mass exodus to the U.S. in search of medical care, education and jobs. The island nations are especially vulnerable to impacts of climate change, which only worsens their plight.

Under COFA the U.S. has already contributed billions of dollars to help Micronesia, including to build trust funds the nations can draw on should the funding end, as is currently scheduled.

The money has not always been spent wisely by the FSM and RMI, as government reports have shown. But it is still a far more worthwhile investment than the more than $2 trillion the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan over the last 18 years.

Though the U.S. and Micronesia have a long and deep connection, we have a history of neglecting and taking the islands for granted.

Another member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation once authored a piece entitled “Micronesia: Our Bungled Trust.” It illustrated the United States’ failed duties and obligations to help Micronesia become independent and to “promote the economic advancement and self-sufficiency of the inhabitants” and “protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources.”

That was the late Patsy Mink writing in 1971, when Micronesia was under U.S. administration as part of the UN-mandated Trust Territory for the Pacific Islands following World War II. The islands are today independent nations but, shamefully, many of the challenges of 50 years ago remain.

Still, such is the close connection to America that Micronesians proudly serve in the U.S. military in large numbers. In the Pohnpei International Airport, just a few miles from the FSM capital of Palikir, hang the photos of uniformed Micronesians who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

If the treaties are renegotiated in the right way, it can go a long way to help restore the tarnished trust and to help Micronesia. It may just ensure that those photos will still proudly be on display when Xi Jinping pays his first state visit to the FSM.

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