April 28, 2024 | The Sunday Guardian

China watches as the U.S. fumbles around in central Pacific

April 28, 2024 | The Sunday Guardian

China watches as the U.S. fumbles around in central Pacific

The COFAs are what ensures that the U.S. can deploy unmolested across the vast Central Pacific and reach its treaty allies and bases in Japan, South Korea, Philippines and elsewhere. This, in turn, is essential for a free and open Indo-Pacific, with implications reaching all the way to India and beyond.

It wasn’t intended to be embarrassing. It was probably intended—by the people who announced it—to be a sort of celebration. Unpacking what happened next gives a peek into why nothing can be taken for granted in this era of heightened strategic “competition”, how healthy country-to-country relations require constant and real communications, and that the actual problems may not be where you are looking.

Background: The most important defence agreements you’ve never heard of

Three independent countries in the central Pacific—Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) and Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)—cover a highly strategic contiguous maritime zone running from west of Hawaii to the Philippines.

The United States, through separate agreements with each of the three—known as the Compacts of Free Association (COFA)—are granted defence and security rights and responsibilities over this zone, that is about the size of the continental United States. The U.S. is also granted strategic denial, meaning it can deny military access to others.

The COFAs are what ensures that the U.S. can deploy unmolested across the vast Central Pacific and reach its treaty allies and bases in Japan, South Korea, Philippines and elsewhere. This, in turn, is essential for a free and open Indo-Pacific, with implications reaching all the way to India and beyond.

Given the strategic importance of the COFAs, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has dedicated vast funds, efforts and intelligence to try to disrupt them. Should Beijing succeed, it would make it substantially more difficult for the U.S. to easily deploy west of Hawaii, and leave the U.S. territories of Guam and Northern Marianas exposed. This area was controlled by Japan in World War II, and China has learned lessons from the last Pacific War.

That was why the Washington strategic community breathed a sigh of relief when key components of the COFAs were recently renewed for twenty years. Sure, implementation might be tricky, they thought, but basically, we are done. On to other things.

As if to make the point, a major U.S. think-tank announced that on May 9th its Australia Chair would be hosting “A Conversation with the Presidents of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia on U.S. Engagement in the Pacific” with a keynote by the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.

And then it was postponed.

What happened?

The COFAs are complex agreements, made up of many parts and with sometimes substantial variations for each of the three countries. And there are subsequent agreements supporting the main legislation.

In the case of two of the countries, Palau and RMI, there are agreements on services that are yet to be concluded. These include disaster response and postal services—two issues critically important to the people of those countries, and so to their leaders.

The U.S. Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations has moved on, with his job seemingly done. Resolution of the remaining pieces has been confused. While there are still major pieces of the COFAs that most involved know need to be resolved—such as funding for U.S. military veteran health care in the COFA states—it is possible those organizing what they thought was a celebratory event didn’t even realize the negotiations weren’t complete.

The leaders of Palau and RMI knew, though, and are likely keen for everything to be resolved before backslapping ensues.

Another less than ideal aspect was that the event was being hosted by the think-tank’s Australia Chair in D.C. This has nothing to do with the excellent work being done there, it is just that, given the importance of the relationships between the U.S. and the COFA states, it shouldn’t appear to be mediated via another country. Apart from everything else, by hosting U.S. bases and troops (including a just announced $409 million Air Force project in Yap) the people of the COFA countries are putting themselves in harm’s way for U.S. security. And they know it.

It is hard to imagine being under the Australia Chair would have been the choice of a President of a COFA state (it is worth noting China has at least half-a-dozen research institutions dedicated solely to the Pacific Islands, including a China-Pacific Islands Countries Climate Action Cooperation Center).

There was no reason the event couldn’t have been held under the think-tank’s America, Defence or even Asia Programs. The citizens of COFA states can live, work and study freely in the U.S.—and the links are, as President Reagan put it at the time it was established—familial. They are also critical for defence, and for Asia. Meanwhile, Australia plays a minimal role in the COFA states, especially compared to other non-directly involved countries such as Japan.

Hopefully, the remaining negotiations will be successfully concluded soon, go to Congress, then be enacted. And perhaps the postponed events can be revived in a new form. But, even then, no one should get comfortable sitting on their laurels.

Apart from what will be a very tricky implementation period, it is worth looking at the dog that didn’t bark. Just as the three COFA states aren’t like any other Pacific Island countries, the three COFA states themselves are very different.

The dog that didn’t bark

Note that Palau and RMI are still negotiating, but FSM concluded its negotiations. A U.S. strategist might fairly think all is fine with FSM, and the issues are with Palau and RMI.

Perhaps not. Palau and RMI recognize Taiwan and FSM recognizes China. Indeed, Wesley Simina, the President of FSM was in China April 5 to 12, where he met General Secretary Xi and came back loaded with goodies and echoing PRC talking points.

In the FSM, China is also embedding in the aspect politicians care most about—staying in power. In the past few days, Simina was in Fono Island, in his home state of Chuuk. He announced that, thanks to China, they would be repairing a dock and building a gym on the island. Chuuk has governor elections in March 2025 that are likely to be key for selecting the next President in 2027—a position Simina would likely want to retain.

Looking at the details of its COFAs, it is possible Palau and RMI are negotiating harder—and so look like more “trouble”—because they want it to work in the long run.

Meanwhile, some in the FSM might be trying to be in a position to be able to walk away from the COFA at, or even before, the next renewal. For some of them, this might not even be because they are “pro-China” but just because they don’t want to be beholden (in their view) to a country that doesn’t take them seriously.

Simina was given the red-carpet treatment in China and, two weeks later, was going to be lumped in with two other countries at an Australia Chair event at a think-tank in DC with no guarantee of a White House visit. There are also rumours of a Simina visit to India. If that happens, it will be interesting to see how seriously FSM is taken by Delhi.

Hopefully, the delay will give those in D.C. time to rethink what sort events they want to hold with COFA partners. In the end, the postponed event is a useful reminder that these critical relationships, like many others (as India knows well), are never “sorted”. They need time, attention to detail, intelligence, adaptability, and understanding of very different operating realities. Those who learn from that have no need to be embarrassed. Those who don’t shouldn’t be surprised about what happens next.

Cleo Paskal is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and columnist with The Sunday Guardian.


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