Essay from NBR Special Report no. 104
Conclusion: Strategic Pathways for U.S.-Micronesia Engagement
This is the conclusion to the NBR report “Charting a New Course for the Pacific Islands: Strategic Pathways for U.S.-Micronesia Engagement.”
For the United States, the Pacific Islands are a critical geostrategic region within the Indo-Pacific. The subregion of Micronesia is at the heart of U.S. interests in this region given the military, diplomatic, economic, and people-to-people ties that have been sustained across these island states. The Compact of Free Association (COFA) nations—the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands—and the U.S. territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have allowed the United States to solidify its military power in the western Pacific. Despite this history, there are clear disconnects between the United States and Pacific Islands in Micronesia that must be addressed in order to preserve U.S. commitments, strengthen partnerships in the region, and effectively respond to urgent security challenges. Specifically, it is increasingly important for the United States to acknowledge these islands not just as strategic assets but as strategic partners.
The essays in this report have outlined a series of issues across the Micronesian security landscape on which the United States can increase its engagement, ranging from health and food security to challenges in the maritime domain, such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. As described by Alan Tidwell, the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing impacts from climate change have had a profound effect on the stability of numerous Micronesian states due to their lack of capacity and resilience in the health sector. This has wide-reaching implications for these countries and territories as pandemics and other biological threats will naturally and unforeseeably occur in the future, compounded by climate change as an evolving issue exacerbating numerous Pacific concerns. At the Pacific Islands Strategic Dialogue convened by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), which has informed the contributions in this special report, climate change and its consequences rose to the forefront as the primary security concern in the region.
Strategic Competition, Climate Change, and Regional Stability
Micronesia has become a primary focal point for U.S.-China competition as China’s economic and diplomatic ambitions have expanded in the region, rivaling U.S. influence. Beijing views Micronesia and the broader Pacific Islands as a market for trade and investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and as potential diplomatic and security partners. The BRI’s extension into the Pacific has been endorsed by all ten Pacific Island countries that have formal diplomatic relations with China. Although BRI project have aided in the development of local economies, they may also make some countries and communities vulnerable to resource exploitation. For instance, Kiribati’s fishing industry produces more tuna than any other country in the world and serves as a hub for Chinese fishing fleets. China’s strategic access and overfishing in Kiribati’s waters has contributed to the decline of global fishing stocks and highlights concerns about IUU fishing. Kiribati’s switch in its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China also emphasizes Beijing’s ongoing attempts to politically isolate Taiwan. Three of the thirteen UN member states globally that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan are in Micronesia: Nauru, Palau, and the Marshall Islands.
Kenneth Gofigan Kuper notes that intensifying U.S.-China competition has brought about a destabilizing shift to Micronesia’s geopolitical and security environment. Micronesia hosts the bulk of U.S. military forces among the three Pacific Islands subregions, with Guam, in particular, serving as the most essential and strategic location for U.S. military operations. While the U.S. military is committed to fighting for and from Guam, its presence also makes the island a potential target for China and other adversarial countries, such as North Korea. In the event that the United States becomes militarily involved in a cross-strait conflict for the defense of Taiwan, China is likely to attack key U.S. bases in the Indo-Pacific. Guam will be prioritized for such an offense, especially as thousands of U.S. Marines are set to be relocated there from Okinawa, despite local concerns. China has even developed a conventionally armed ballistic missile, further heightening the security situation for Guam. The geopolitical ramifications of U.S.-China competition are also affecting how Pacific nations interact with one another, including within the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s main multilateral organization. Kiribati’s withdrawal from the forum in 2022 is largely seen as a result of deepening relations with China and sentiments that the regional body has continuously disregarded Micronesian interests. The Biden administration has made efforts to reach out to the Pacific Islands Forum amid these tensions, but there must be sustained engagement to strengthen Pacific regionalism.
The U.S. approach to Pacific regionalism must also recognize that the Pacific Islands within Micronesia are fundamentally different and have varying relationships with the United States, based on their political and territorial status. For instance, the Covenant, which governs U.S. relations with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, is not the same as the arrangements that govern Guam. Each of the COFA agreements has provisions specific to the particular countries and timelines for renegotiation that differ, though the Biden administration has made notable strides by signing memoranda of understanding with the three COFA states and hopes to renew the three compacts soon.
Although diverse issues continue to plague Micronesia and the Pacific Islands more broadly, climate change remains the single most important security challenge uniting all countries and territories in the region. Since many of the islands are small low-lying atolls, including in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Nauru, they are severely affected by rising sea levels and are at risk of being submerged. Climate change already constitutes an existential threat, as the possibility of submersion has become a reality for some of the Pacific Island countries.
In the Pacific Islands region, climate change intersects with a variety of security concerns. Tidwell points to direct correlations between climate change and food security in these countries and territories that rely heavily on their waters for nourishment. The geographic and water temperature shifts will affect fishing stocks as tuna and other species of fish migrate. In addition to hurting local food supplies, this negatively affects local economies that depend on fisheries as a source of revenue to maintain schools, hospitals, and other critical services. As rising sea levels create increasingly uninhabitable geographies, the economic and labor-related consequences of climate change will also intensify. The United States has recommitted to action on the climate crisis, but the existential threat to Pacific security and livelihoods means that measures to reduce the impact of climate change and mitigate further increases in global temperatures cannot wait.
Lessons Learned for the United States
The approaches of U.S. allies to engagement in the Pacific Islands can provide examples for the United States when it comes to bolstering cooperation in Micronesia. In their essay, Henrietta McNeill and Joanne Wallis describe how Australia and New Zealand have learned from past mistakes and are rebuilding relationships, including with Micronesian states, through their respective Pacific Step-up and Pacific Reset policies. Both countries have come to recognize the importance of actively engaging with and listening to the Pacific Island countries and have incorporated those values into their Pacific strategies.
In particular, Australia and New Zealand have strengthened their militaries’ focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), capabilities that are tremendously needed within Micronesia and across the Pacific. The U.S. Coast Guard already maintains strong relationships with Pacific nations, such as the Federated States of Micronesia, on maritime law enforcement to address IUU fishing and also conducts operations on joint search and rescue exercises. There is, however, much potential for the U.S. military—specifically its naval forces—to divert more of its attention and capabilities toward joint HADR activities with Australia and New Zealand. Although HADR has been identified as a shared goal among the three nations, and each has engaged in individual disaster response operations, these countries have yet to realize the full potential of combined HADR. Given that the United States has greater leverage in the security framework of Micronesia than Australia and New Zealand, it should exercise that advantage to increase its HADR efforts to support the safety of its Micronesian partners and enhance strategic trilateral coordination.
At the same time, there are lessons to be learned from China and its level of engagement in Micronesia. Beijing has asserted its economic and diplomatic influence over the region and other developing nations with the growth of its national power in the 21st century. China has demonstrated that it can effectively compete in the areas of trade and economic investment, presenting a strategic challenge to the United States. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, China’s total trade volume with Pacific Island diplomatic partners was $5.3 billion in 2021, and its investments in those states amounted to $2.72 billion by the latter half of 2022. In comparison, the most recent data from the U.S. Trade Representative shows that the United States’ total volume of trade with the Pacific Islands was only $968 million in 2020. It is evident that Beijing’s strategic approach to economic development in the Pacific Islands has largely been successful, in part because few other countries rival it in terms of investment scale. As Pacific scholars Dame Meg Taylor and Soli Middleby have noted, “while Chinese-built infrastructure is criticized for being sub-standard, it remains the only real option.”
However, Beijing’s strategic approaches to security in the region have not been as effective, as it has attempted to advance proposals to partners with little consultation and the expectation that they will accept. For instance, China worked to push forward a collective security agreement in the region in 2022, but that arrangement was rejected by its ten diplomatic partners in the Pacific. Several of the partners cited concerns regarding the expansion of Chinese influence into security matters. This episode highlights regional fears of U.S.-China competition overtaking regional priorities and the imperative to keep Pacific Island interests in mind.
On that front, maintaining and encouraging regional unity should be a focus of the United States in this period of higher engagement with Micronesia. Bolstering Pacific regionalism amid internal tensions within the Pacific Islands Forum will not be easy, but it is crucial for the United States to remain present, open, and proactive in its diplomacy. To that end, a reactionary approach to China’s engagement in the Pacific Islands is not sustainable for U.S. relationships with regional countries. The United States must instead actively and consistently engage with its partners and understand their perception of key security challenges. Furthermore, the United States should fulfill its climate change commitments in Micronesia and the broader Pacific to enhance its diplomatic standing and build trust. This will require follow-through on cooperative initiatives such as the Partners in the Blue Pacific and the newly created Pacific Partnership Strategy, as well as on climate resilience efforts.
In conclusion, NBR’s Pacific Islands Strategic Dialogue found that U.S. efforts to encourage mutually beneficial ties in Micronesia and leverage them to bolster regional security must rest on the “three A’s”: acknowledge, appreciate, and actively coordinate. Acknowledging means recognizing that Pacific Island countries and territories, including those in Micronesia, are not monolithic. Should U.S. officials and representatives lump these disparate jurisdictions and cultures together as one homogenous entity, important nuances will be missed. Appreciating the concerns of Pacific Island leaders is not simply a matter of agreeing with them or using their rhetoric. U.S. officials must make a concerted effort to understand the seriousness of the concerns raised in key documents from the Pacific Islands Forum, such as the Boe Declaration and the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, otherwise their engagement will come across as insincere. Last, actively coordinating requires U.S. government agencies, some of which are larger than the populations of some Pacific Islands nations, to ensure that programs and policies do not overwhelm local officials and Pacific voices.
Building and maintaining trust requires presence, resource commitments, and a long-term agenda. The permanent representative of Samoa to the United Nations put it succinctly to the United States recently in a quote that should guide any strategy in the Pacific Island countries going forward: “Make your presence felt in the region in terms of representation. You cannot compete if you are not in the region.”
Melanie Berry is a Vice President at The Asia Group, where she focuses on the company’s Japan portfolio.
Darlene Onuorah is a Project Associate in the Political and Security Affairs group at the National Bureau of Asian Research.
 Pita Ligaiula, “Study of Kiribati Economy Finds It Is Over-reliant on Tuna Fishery,” Pacific Islands News Association, August 22, 2022, https://pina.com.fj/2022/08/22/study-of-kiribati-economy-finds-it-is-over-reliant-on-tuna-fishery/?doing_wp_cron=1676561602.3623011112213134765625.
 Phill Leon Guerrero, “Admiral: Ability to Defend Guam ‘Absolutely Critical,’ ” Guam Daily Post, July 1, 2022, https://www.postguam.com/news/local/admiral-ability-to-defend-guam-absolutely-critical/article_8cffbcee-f859-11ec-a07e-bb300b7054f6.html.
 Maricar Cinco, “2024 Transfer of Okinawa-Based Marines to Guam on Course: U.S. Marines,” Kyodo News, December 9, 2022, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/12/d96faaa52e79-2024-transfer-of-okinawa-based-marines-to-guam-on-course-us-marines.html.
 For further discussion of the Covenant, see Howard P. Willens and Deanne C. Siemer, An Honorable Accord: The Covenant between the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002). For an in-depth discussion of self-governance in Guam, see Office of the Governor of Guam, Commission on Decolonization, Giha Mo’na: A Self-Determination Study for Guahan (Mangilao: University of Guam Press, 2021).
 Matthew Lee, “U.S. Nears New Cooperation Deals with Pacific Island Nations,” Associated Press, January 14, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/politics-china-marshall-islands-palau-cadbe13c8cf26dd8b117bca686e06bba.
 “Disappearing Islands: Inevitable Climate Change Phenomenon,” American Bazaar, July 29, 2022, https://www.americanbazaaronline.com/2022/07/29/disappearing-islands-inevitable-climate-change-phenomenon-450417.
 Katherine Seto et al., “Climate Change Is Causing Tuna to Migrate: It Could Spell Catastrophe for the Small Islands That Depend on Them,” American Bazaar, August 2, 2021, https://www.americanbazaaronline.com/2022/07/29/disappearing-islands-inevitable-climate-change-phenomenon-450417.
 Dylan Nicholson, “ANZUS Hospital Ships for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief,” Defence Connect, April 1, 2020, https://www.defenceconnect.com.au/key-enablers/5861-anzus-hospital-ships-for-had.
 Sanjeshni Kumar, “Pacific Island Nations Eye More Opportunities: Pacific Trade Invest China,” Pacific Islands News Association, November 23, 2022, https://pina.com.fj/2022/11/23/pacific-island-nations-eye-more-opportunities-pacific-trade-invest-china.
 Wang Yi, “China–Solomon Islands Bilateral Security Cooperation,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, June 3, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202206/t20220603_10698478.html.
 For example, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is responsible for managing the aspects of the relationships with the U.S. territories and COFA states, has over 70,000 people. The population of the Marshall Islands is just over 60,000 people.
 Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Pa’olelei Luteru in “Building a Blue Pacific Agenda for the 21st Century,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 23, 2022, https://www.csis.org/events/building-blue-pacific-agenda-twenty-first-century.