The president of Micronesia held high-level talks with U.S. officials, focusing on military and security issues, efforts to fight transnational crime and climate change during a recent 10-day trip to Hawaii.

David Panuelo and U.S. officials also discussed increasing the frequency of American military training in the island nation and the potential of establishing a permanent presence, according to a press release from the Federated States of Micronesia.

The visit, which ended Monday, came as the U.S. seeks to solidify its relationships with Pacific Island nations amid rising tensions with China, which is competing for influence in the region.

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo visited U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp Smith for strategic talks with commanders. Courtesy: U.S. INDOPACOM/2021

President Joe Biden’s administration faces looming deadlines to renew key provisions of treaties that secure the U.S. military’s strategic control over the northwestern Pacific.

Funding agreements in the treaties, known as the Compacts of Free Association, are set to expire in 2023 for Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. A separate COFA agreement with the Republic of Palau will expire in 2024.

The U.S. was set to renew the COFA agreements during former President Donald Trump’s administration, but COVID-19 stalled talks last year.

During his visit, Panuelo and U.S. officials discussed “plans for more frequent and permanent U.S. Armed Forces presence” and “agreed to cooperate on how that presence will be built up both temporarily and permanently within the FSM with the purpose of serving the mutual security interests of both nations,” the press release said.

The COFA agreements give the U.S. military free rein to conduct operations in the waters and air space off the islands and allow the U.S. military to block other nations’ military activities in the area.

In return, the United States funds several initiatives and allows citizens of those countries to live and work in the U.S. without a visa and receive some American government services. 

Hawaii is the nerve center for U.S. military operations across the entire Pacific Ocean and parts of the Indian Ocean, which the Pentagon now considers its top priority theater. 

“Oceania has always had a strategic importance in terms of sea lanes, free shipping and the ability to move goods and services which is done primarily over water,” said Peter Gumataotao, director of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Waikiki.

Panuelo met with Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, at Camp Smith. Maritime security, particularly illegal fishing, was at the top of the agenda, the Micronesian government said.

Fishing rights have increasingly become a national security concern as the world’s fisheries become strained and depleted by industrial fishing fleets, threatening food security and coastal economies that depend on healthy fish stocks. Companies and vessels engaged in illegal fishing have also been tied to money laundering and transnational crime.

The U.S. military is particularly concerned about China’s massive fishing fleet, and is worried about more than fish stocks. Last year the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard warned that China “deploys a multilayered fleet” that includes “naval auxiliaries disguised as civilian vessels” that it has deployed against neighboring countries.

Gumataotao said it was important that Panuelo met with Aquilino, who took over as commander of U.S. forces in the region in April.

“Relationships do matter,” said Gumataotao. Panuelo, who is also an alum of APCSS’s leadership program, also visited the center and met with Gumataotao.

Panuelo, who was born on the island of Pohnpei but earned a degree in political science from Eastern Oregon University in 1987, has deep personal ties to the United States. He also served as a diplomat and civil servant for years before being elected as president in 2019.

Micronesian President David Panuelo shakes hands with Peter Gumataotao, director of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Waikiki. Courtesy: APCSS/2021

Gumataotao said that the U.S. needs to take its relationships with Pacific Island nations seriously “so that it doesn’t put us in a vulnerable position in the event a future adversary comes in to fill that vacuum, because the United States, or like-minded allies are absent from that region.”

A 2019 report by the RAND Corporation noted that in recent years Chinese grants helped build homes for FSM government officials, paid for ships for interisland travel and offered scholarships for islander students.  

China also has proposed building two casinos in Micronesia and rolled out the red carpet for its then-president in a 2017 state visit to Beijing. 

Panuelo, however, expressed confidence in the island nation’s relationship with the United States.

“I asked the question ‘How will the United States defend the FSM?’ — and the answer has never been clearer,” he said in the press release. “Micronesians and Americans alike can sleep better, confident that the FSM-U.S. Enduring Partnership is stronger than it has ever been.”

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