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U.S. Commander Emphasizes Military Value of COFA Nations

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on March 21, United States Indo-Pacific Commander John Aquilino continued to build on the theme of U.S. military strength and preparedness that has dominated recent congressional passage of U.S. Compacts of Free Association with three small Pacific Island nations.

“The Guam cluster – comprised of the forward-most U.S. territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) – as well as the Freely Associated States (FAS), which include the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) – is the cornerstone of the U.S. security architecture west of the International Date Line,” he explained. “In a crisis, bases and infrastructure in these territories and states will be crucial to sustain the Joint Force.”

The FAS are independent nations that have uniquely close relations with the United States. The U.S. provides these nations with economic assistance and defense as well as the right to live and work freely in the United States. In return, the United States has unfettered military access to their land, air and water, with the right to limit other nations’ access.

“Under the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) agreements with the Freely Associated States (FAS), the U.S. has full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters in and related to the FAS, including extensive access to operations in their territories,” Aquilino continued.

Aquilino recapped the severe delays in completing the COFA renewal agreements. The Commander also reported that resources in these areas are overtaxed, and that there is not enough local labor to meet the needs of the U.S. military in the territories, nor in the FAS.

“Oceania – The Freely Associated States (FAS)–the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and Palau–occupy a strategic location linking the U.S. to the rest of the Indo-Pacific region, and they have the highest military service per capita in the U.S. military,” he explained. “We greatly appreciate that Congress recently passed the legislation that will allow the new COFA-related assistance agreements to be brought into force.”

The testimony focused on the military’s appreciation of Congress’s completion of the COFA agreements. Nonetheless, it had an undertone of warming. The document concludes with a statement that it’s important to maintain the compacts of free association “to ensure the United States remains the security partner of choice in the Indo-Pacific.”

This is a clear reference to the concerns, widely expressed during the process of renegotiation of the COFAs, that the FAS might choose to side with China if the United States did not succeed in renegotiating the agreements.


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