9 Aug 2019

US, Japan ramp up presence, aid to north Pacific

4:42 pm on 9 August 2019

World War II battlegrounds, 1950s hydrogen bomb test sites, and prized real estate of the United States during the Cold War era with the former Soviet Union, the islands of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands in the north Pacific were relegated to backwater outposts the past three decades - recipients of largesse by Washington, Tokyo and other allied powers, but otherwise largely ignored.

The increasing competition between China and the US for allies and strategic advantage in the Pacific region has seen a meteoric rise in attention for these three nations, dramatically altering the landscape and elevating the islands beyond even their Cold War period visibility.

The unprecedented visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Micronesia - who met with leaders of the three nations - on Monday was followed in quick order by the equally unprecedented visit to the Marshall Islands Thursday by Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono.

These visits followed President Donald Trump's red-carpet welcome to heads of state of the three nations at the White House in May, another historic first for leaders who represent a combined population of under 200,000.

Both high-level visitors to the islands this week announced the promise of greater aid and attention: Pompeo announced the start of negotiations to extend US grant funding slated to end in 2023 and Kono announced Thursday in Majuro Japan's support for a $US5 million hospital ship, $US7.4 million for two disaster management centres, plans to support the construction of a large new water reservoir for Majuro, fisheries and maritime enforcement support, and consideration of a new patrol vessel.

Japan has decided "to increase support to countries in the region for a free and open Indo-Pacific," said Kono at a press conference on Thursday afternoon in Majuro.

Marshall Islands Foreign Minister John Silk praised Japan for its "proactive stance" on fisheries conservation in regional tuna management and said the island nation intended to work closely with Japan to "strengthen the special relationship".

Kono was on the fourth stop of a four-nation island-hop that started in Fiji last weekend and included visits to Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia before Majuro.

Pompeo's announcement on Monday was welcomed by island leaders and followed just two weeks after China deposited $US2 million into Micronesia's trust fund - a fund the US Government Accountability Office three weeks ago, said was likely to produce an insufficient level of interest to maintain the Micronesian government's financial stability.

All three nations have treaties with Washington known as Compacts of Free Association. Soon-expiring funding agreements under these treaties were set up to capitalise trust funds in an effort to wean the islands off direct US federal funding after decades of largesse from Washington.

But Pompeo confirmed Monday in Pohnpei that the US will not allow a financial opening for China in these US-affiliated islands and the US is prepared to negotiate an extension of the grant funding beyond 2023.

"We want to help nations of the Indo-Pacific to continue their decades' long rise and maintain their sovereignty both in the political and economic spheres," he said as he announced the launch of discussions to extend US grant funding beyond its long-planned end in 2023," said Naoaki Kamoshida, Assistant Press Secretary for Japan's Foreign Ministry who accompanied Kono to Majuro.

"We are aware of China's activities (in the Pacific region) and are watching closely and how it might affect the stability and prosperity of the region," he said.

Kamoshida attributed Japan's promise of increased aid to the Pacific island region as "reflecting the fact that this region is gaining importance more than ever".

Japan, he added, is "promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific that doesn't target certain countries. If any country shares our values and vision, we are happy to work with them".

Island leaders seem to be happy to engage with their newly invigorated traditional donor partners - following the meeting with Pompeo in Pohnpei Monday, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine said the Marshall Islands "looks forward to increasing focus with the US on economic security, climate change impacts, and health security related to the nuclear test legacy".