‘Japan and US have had a relationship with the Micronesian region for over 100 years. Australia has also been providing patrol boats for the past nearly 30 years. India has just begun. It will be important to build a relationship first.’

Alexandria, US: There is a lot going on in the Pacific Islands at the moment, including the unrest in the Solomon Islands and the fragmentation of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).
The PIF issue is important. The PIF used to be the main political grouping for the Pacific islands, but recently five countries from the Micronesian geographic region announced their intention to leave the group because they concluded that their concerns were being ignored and their voices muted by larger members, including Australia and New Zealand. Together, the five countries—Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Kiribati and Nauru—cover an area larger than the continental US and India combined.
Apart from the five countries, the Micronesia region also includes some highly strategic locations, including the American territory of Guam, site of major military installations. As a result of dissatisfaction with the PIF, and wanting to make their concerns heard internationally without passing through the distortion of intermediaries, there is growing interest among Micronesian leaders to consolidate and work together more as a group.
Since the end of World War II, the main major power in the region has been the United States. There are American citizens on American soil in Guam and the Marianas, and three of the independent countries (Palau, RMI and FSM) have Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with the US, giving Washington control and responsibility over their defence.
However, the COFAs are up for renewal in the next couple of years and, in spite of bipartisan support for a quick and fair resolution in the US Congress, the US administration is moving very slowly, including sending what are perceived as low-level negotiators to the meetings.
Other regional powers are concerned, including Micronesia’s neighbour Japan. To get a better understanding of how the situation is viewed, in this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines” we speak with deeply experienced academic and practitioner Dr Rieko Hayakawa, one of the founders of Japan’s Indo-Pacific Study Group, who has spent decades working in, and with, the region.
Q: How long have there been interactions between Japan and the people and islands of Micronesia?
A: More than a million samurai suddenly lost their jobs after US Commodore Perry’s cannonball diplomacy. In 1890, some samurai-turned-merchants began to sail to the islands of Micronesia and trade began. In 1914, under the terms of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Japan entered World War I and occupied German-held Micronesia. After the Versailles Conference, Japan was granted a mandate for these islands, and in 1922 began a civilian government. By 1935, about 50,000 Japanese, the same number as the islanders, had settled in Micronesia, mainly from Okinawa. Okinawan fishermen began a pelagic fishing industry that continues today and has grown to export to the Japanese market. Many of the islanders married Japanese and still use their Japanese names, such as the late President Nakamura of Palau.
Currently, there are Japanese embassies in each country in the Micronesian region, which were established by Japanese Prime Minister Mori at the request of Palauan President Nakamura. Japan’s support is extensive, but more permanent assistance is needed.
Q: Can you describe the idea for a Japan-Palau Friendship treaty?
A: The Indo-Pacific Study Group of Japan has submitted a draft “Japan-Palau Friendship Treaty” to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Parliament Union for PICs, in order to solve the persistent financial difficulties of the small island nation of Palau. This would be a permanent support aimed at strengthening the current system with the US. It would be an obligation for Japan to support Palau and a right for Palau. A similar agreement exists between New Zealand and Samoa.
It is not a matter of charity, but the stability of Palau and the Western Pacific region, located in the second island chain, is important to the national interests of Japan and other countries. This might be an interesting model in the rest of the region. And could possibly involve the Quad in some aspects.
Q: What has the relationship between the US and Micronesia been like since the end of World War II?
A: It is widely known that for about 15 years after the war, until the John F. Kennedy administration came into power [Kennedy fought in the Pacific during World War II and his life was saved by two Solomon Islanders], the Micronesian region was “benign neglected”—but even US scholars are not sure that this is an appropriate description. The US not only neglected the region, but also conducted nuclear tests under a strict security regime. It was a report by a UN field inspection committee that revealed the terrible condition of US trusteeship. The Kennedy administration then launched a massive budgetary effort and Peace Corps deployment to redeem the Trusteeship.
The US military has always had an interest in Micronesia, which it calls a “strategic area”. In the 1970s, independence negotiations between the countries in the region and the United States continued. In the 1980s, the United States signed Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with three countries in Micronesia, Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. They are known as the Freely Associated States (FAS).
The COFA agreements with the FAS have hundreds of pages, unlike the few pages that New Zealand has with the Cook Islands and Niue. The COFAs aimed at ensuring US security, not the security of the people of Micronesia.
Some Micronesia high officials said, “Micronesia are not satisfied with the US level of involvement as well as terms. US calls it aid, but it’s not aid, it’s a partnership.”
And with the end of the Cold War, the United States suddenly disappeared from the region, just as they did in Afghanistan. When I started working on the Pacific island countries in 1991, there were many projects left that the US had lost interest in. One of them, PEACESAT, used a satellite provided free of charge by the US government, and operated by the University of Hawaii, for education and welfare, covering the entire PICs. The University of the South Pacific also used the same satellite, USPNet, to connect its 12-member island countries. In the 1990s, international communications were still limited and expensive. I was able to make USPNet an ODA project for the first Pacific Island Leaders Summit hosted by the Japanese government in 1997.
Q: Can you please give us a bit of background to the relationship between the countries of the Micronesian region and the Pacific Islands Forum—and the role played by Australia and New Zealand?
A: The Pacific Islands Forum (originally known as the South Pacific Forum) is a regional organisation established in 1971 with Fiji taking the initiative and the former British colonies as core members. Australia and New Zealand have been full members of the Forum since its establishment. As a result, there is a strong British colonial culture in the organization.
On the other hand, the current Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, which are located north of the Equator and were colonies of Germany and Japan, as well as under US administration, were late to join the PIF.
Palau was concerned about the strong influence of Australia and New Zealand in the Forum, and during its chairmanship in 1999, then-President Nakamura removed the “South” from the organization’s name. I happened to be in Palau and was told by President Nakamura that Helen Clark and John Howard were stubborn and fought strongly against this change.
When the Micronesia Presidential Summit (MPS) began in 2001, reform of the PIF was on the agenda. The establishment of a new organization composed entirely of Pacific island countries, excluding Australia and New Zealand, was also being considered. In other words, the current move by the Micronesian countries to leave the PIF has been in the works for 20 years.
Q: What is going on with the COFAs? What needs to be done?
A: In my 30 years of experience, I have rarely met a US government official who had knowledge and passion for this region. One of them told me at a cocktail party that the US government, especially Congress, wanted to return the FAS states to Japan. It was half in jest, half in earnest. After Secretary Clinton’s island-hopping tour with Kurt Campbell, the US paid a bit more attention to the region, but not much changed.
Another item on the MPS agenda was the COFA negotiations with the US government. The Micronesian countries wanted to work together to save time and money from having to hire expensive lobbyists and lawyers in Washington DC. China, on the other hand, has made it clear that it is prepared to offer enormous aid without the effort. It told Palau’s President Whipps, “the sky is the limit”.
Just as the Indian government, through the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), provided $1.5 million to improve community health centers in Palau, the Quad should support the Micronesian region.
The US Congress, like Ed Case from Hawaii, has done a great job for the FAS. He should be proud of the many US citizens who have dedicated their lives to Micronesia. For example, Fr. Francis Hezel, who founded the Micronesia Seminar, which provides educational support for 60 years, the gem of the region.
There needs to be a high-level effort to quickly resolve the COFAs, something that will also be good for the US and the aspirations of the Micronesian region—with its varied and unique relationships to the US—to come together as a group should be respected, honoured and facilitated.
Q: Palau has set up a Palau National Security Coordinator (PNSC) position. Can you please explain why, what the challenges are, and if this might be a good idea for other Pacific Island Countries?
A: The PNSC is responsible for developing the national security strategy, serving as the President’s primary security advisor, and as the primary point of contact with foreign military officials and all security information.
The PNSC was established by presidential executive order in March 2021 and is currently operating with a limited staff. This security capability is very important, but it requires the support of the United States, Australia, Japan, and Taiwan.
This NSC capability is also important for other PICs, but it is meaningless without financial and human support from trusted countries. In particular, security issues are changing rapidly, and human resources support for small island nations is essential.
Palau, like any other island nation, is a paradise for tourists, but it is also a paradise for all kinds of transnational crime. In the past few years, nearly 1,000 Chinese mafia members have entered Palau and stayed illegally to conduct online casinos, including cybercrime. A major mafia boss made a contract with former President Remengesau of Palau to obtain a casino license and for leasing the island of Angaur for the casino resort.
In addition, due to Palau’s strategic location and the aggressive approach from China, the same former President Remengesau wrote a letter to former US Secretary of Defense Esper requesting the presence of US military in August 2020.
Q: Is there a role for the Quad in Micronesia? If so, where does India fit in?
A: Japan and the United States have had a relationship with the Micronesian region for over 100 years. Australia has also been providing patrol boats for the past nearly 30 years. India has just begun, for example, the UNOPS project in Palau mentioned earlier. It will be important to build a relationship first.
Currently, Japan, US, and Australia have deployed advisors on the ground and are conducting joint maritime surveillance. In September 2021, three JMSDF ships entered Palau for the first time after WWII to conduct joint exercises with the Palau Maritime Law Enforcement. Next year, joint exercises with the US are expected. The Western Pacific is vast and security is under the jurisdiction of the United States. How about the Indian Navy joining in here?
The Micronesian countries have no universities, only colleges. A scholarship to an Indian university in the same English-speaking region would be a great opportunity for them. Especially medical scholarships to India. India has very good health systems and the best doctors. Or even setting up a medical school in the region.
All the Pacific countries have large youth populations, and they have problems with unemployment, drugs, violence, and suicide. They need opportunities.
If I could add one last thing, I am convinced that India’s ICT capacity has supported the IT development in Pacific Island countries. The backbone submarine cables are being laid with the cooperation of Japan, the US and Australia, but Micronesia need various technical and institutional support to prepare for cyber security.