US President focus on the Pacific Islands

By: Peni Komaisavai

United States President Donald Trump is directing an unprecedented level of focus on the Pacific Islands.

Earlier this week, Trump met with Palau’s President Thomas Remengesau Jr, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine and the new President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) David Panuelo at the White House, in Washington DC. White House officials said the visit recognised that the US is a “Pacific nation with immutable strategic, economic, cultural, and people-to-people links to these islands.”

The three Pacific Islands have Compacts of Free Association with the United States.

The US pays the direct economic assistance to the three countries, and citizens of the compact states have free access to the US. In return, they play a role in US military strategy and positioning across the Pacific.

Following the meeting, the three Pacific Islands leaders issued a joint statement with President Trump, reaffirming their interest in a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.

“It is in our mutual interest that the Pacific Ocean remains an important and vibrant corridor for maritime trade,” the statement said.

“We recognise 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.”

During the tour, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine said China is targeting the Marshall Islands through dubious illegal ship visits and a proposed semi-autonomous district.

US opposition to China’s growing influence in the Pacific islands region has been speculated as one of the underlying reasons for the meeting with US officials.

Transcripts of the meeting quote Heine as saying, “Admiral Davidson was spot on when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Freely Associated States are threatened by the use of Beijing’s economic leverage.”

She was the only leader during the meeting who directly raised the issue of Chinese influence.

Her comments were made days after President Remengesau of Palau wrote in an opinion piece that the U.S Freely Associated States were part of a strategy to counter China’s expansionism and militarisation, which threatened to break out into war in the Western Pacific.

Meanwhile, during a separate visit to the Pentagon, the Acting Secretary for Defence, Patrick Shanahan told the three leaders, “we are committed to working with you to address common security challenges such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.”

President Panuelo responded by saying, “Our defence and security commitments under the Compact of the Freely Associated States has never wavered at any time in the history of our relationship, and that will continue in perpetuity, as far as we’re concerned.”

He also asked that,  “while we affirm this alliance, we want to ensure that it also adapts. We would welcome a larger U.S. 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.”