The United States is slated to get a new military base — this time in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Last month, during high-level talks in Honolulu, the US Indo-Pacific Command and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) agreed to build a new base in the island nation, an archipelago of more than 600 islands strewn across the Western Pacific, some 3,700 miles from Hawaii.
The move is seen as another component of the Biden administration’s continued effort to increase its footprint in Oceania.
However, details about the base, so far, are scarce, causing anxiety for some FSM citizens who are worried about disruptions to their way of life, and wary about the idea of American military expansion in the region.
Sam Illesugam, 41, has lots of questions about the new military base: How big? What kind of base?
“All of those questions are still very much up in the air for us,” Illesugam told The World.
Illesugam, who now lives and works in the US territory of Guam, still has siblings and other family back in Yap, one of the Federated States of Micronesia’s four states.
“Any time there is a sudden change to the land, you affect our identity as Native islanders..."
“Any time there is a sudden change to the land, you affect our identity as Native islanders,” he said. “This will alter the social landscape of our islands. Our islands are very, very small. Any type of changes to our lifestyle will greatly affect us.”
Illesugam is also uneasy with the idea of an increased US military presence in the Pacific. Ongoing land disputes on Guam and heightened tensions with locals over the heavy US military presence on Okinawa have put him and others “on alert.”
‘Part of the homeland’
The US military’s record in the Pacific is as checkered as it is long.
Today, US Indo-Pacific Command already has some 375,000 military and civilian personnel working across the Asian Pacific.
The Federated States of Micronesia did not respond to The World’s questions about how, or if, they plan to incorporate the public. But President David W. Panuelo clearly stated that the agreement he made to build the new military base was in the interest of his people.
In particular, their security interests, which are guaranteed by a very special relationship with Washington.
“The Freely Associated States are squarely part of the homeland, and so, we’re being protected by the United States,” Panuelo told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation after his meetings in Hawaii.
The Compacts of Free Association are special, bi-lateral agreements FSM, Palau and The Marshall Islands have each struck with Washington.
Established in the 1980s, these agreements are renegotiated every few years, and through them, the three nations have received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
Satu Limaye, vice president of the East-West Center, said there's also a crucial military component to the agreements, which allows citizens to join the US military.
“The most recent version of the Compact of Free Association requires the United States to defend the FSM and gives it the right to use facilities, bases, sites."
“The most recent version of the Compact of Free Association requires the United States to defend the FSM and gives it the right to use facilities, bases, sites,” he said.
Limaye said that being legally obligated to the US military as a sole defender puts these states in a very unique position.
“FSM, like other countries in the region, is straddling or managing its relations both with China and the United States, as China is increasingly active there,” he said.
Preparing for China’s military capabilities
Beijing has had diplomatic relations with the Federated States of Micronesia for more than 30 years. So far, there’s been no real reaction about their forthcoming base. The two nations engage in millions of dollars in trade annually, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.
President Panuelo told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that in managing his relationships with the US and China, FSM interests come first.
“And so, the posturing of the United States and our country is not looking for confrontation, but rather looking at deterrence and making sure peace exists in our vast Pacific Ocean,” he said.
Still, Washington is increasingly concerned about armed conflict with China, according to Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation.
“They [China] have a growing range to deploy these capabilities against US interests in the Pacific. ... That’s ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, bombers, surface fleets, as well as submarine assets.”
“They have a growing range to deploy these capabilities against US interests in the Pacific,” Grossman said. “That’s ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, bombers, surface fleets, as well as submarine assets.”
Over the last decade or so, China has made significant inroads into the Pacific by scaling up, not just economic involvement, but also its aid, and diplomatic and commercial activity in the region.
The Compact of Free Association States have not been immune to Beijing’s growing influence, according to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
By establishing new military sites in the Pacific, the US gains access to new locations from which to potentially engage in future armed conflict with Beijing. But the downside is that these places are much further away from the US, Grossman said.
The Federated States of Micronesia, for example, is nearly 3,700 miles from Hawaii. And this, Grossman said, will likely make it more difficult for the US to project its influence on the people in the region.
Freelance writer Alex J. Rhowuniong is an FSM-born US military veteran living in Guam. The Chuuk State, Micronesia native says he would like to see a military base built in FSM.
He can understand the hesitation, but for a military mind, “a no-active-military-presence zone is not a safe zone at all,” he wrote in an email to The World.
Rhowuniong noted that a military base in FSM would be both good for the local economy, as well as for the thousands of veterans scattered throughout the nation.
“If the US military does not establish a presence on FSM now, the enemy just might during military conflict,” he said.