The critical strategic importance of north Pacific Island nations to the United States and the need to aggressively increase engagement with the region is highlighted in a newly released report prepared for the US Department of Defense.
The new study, issued by the Rand Corporation, said the US government should "open a productive new chapter" of engagement with the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau in this time of competition with China.
All three nations are closely linked to the United States through treaties known as Compacts of Free Association.
The study was requested by the US Congress through the Defense Department. Titled America's Pacific Allies: The Freely Associated States and Chinese Influence was released in August.
"The unique agreements governing US relations with the FAS - known as 'Compacts of Free Association' - offer the US military exclusive and secure access to the land, sea, and air routes of this enormous region," the study said.
"In short, the FAS are tantamount to a power-projection superhighway running through the heart of the North Pacific into Asia. It effectively connects US military forces in Hawaii to those in theatre, particularly to forward operating positions on the US territory of Guam."
It noted keen interest from China in the FAS region.
"Publications by Chinese scholars suggest that Beijing views the region as strategically important in the context of competition with the United States," the study said.
It noted that the north Pacific region is essential to strategic interests of the United State and that "history underscores that the FAS play a vital role in US defense strategy".
"If ignored or subverted, they could become, as in the past, a critical vulnerability."
As part of engaging in "a new chapter" in US-FAS relations, the US government should maintain funding to the three nations after current grant funding expires in 2023 (Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia) and 2024 (Palau), said the study.
"Going forward, the United States, its allies, and its partners should demonstrate their commitment to the region by maintaining appropriate levels of funding to the FAS, and strengthening engagement with the FAS more broadly," it said.
"Failure to do so would be a self-inflicted wound that could come at the expense of the foreign policy and defense interests of the United States and its allies and partners."
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during a brief visit to Pohnpei last month to meet with leaders of the three countries, announced the US government would open negotiations with the islands for continued funding after the current grant agreements expire.
"To a greater extent than at any time since gaining independence, the FAS are vulnerable to accepting alternative sources of revenue, which China will likely provide as part of a strategy aimed at improving its position in the region," said the Rand study.
"Therefore, this should serve as a catalyst for the opening of a productive new chapter in how the United States and its allies and partners engage with the FAS."