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US Secretary Mike Pompeo makes history in Pohnpei, courts Pacific allies

File photo of US State Secretary Mike Pompeo. Photograph:( Reuters )

AFP Pohnpei, Micronesia Aug 05, 2019, 04.17 PM (IST)

Mike Pompeo became the first US Secretary of State to visit Micronesia Monday, as Washington's signalled a renewed interest in its Pacific allies, no matter how small, in the face of regional competition with China. 

Pompeo touched down on the paradise island of Pohnpei and spent a few hours meeting leaders from Micronesia's Federated States, as well as neighbouring micro-states like Palau and the Marshall Islands.

"Your small islands are big strongholds of freedom," he said while encouraging American tourists to visit.

The diplomatic courtship follows a visit by Pacific Island leaders to the White House earlier this year, part of America's drive for a "free and open" region to counter China's increasingly muscular and expansionist policies.

"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.

"We know China seeks to engage and to influence this region," Pompeo added, expressing confidence that Pacific islands would understand "other Pacific democracies, are the best partnerships."

The President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo tried to play down concerns, saying "our relation with the US is first and foremost" while adding that the relationship with China was purely "economic and technical cooperation."

Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations told AFP that over the past year, the US had "worked aggressively" to shore up its position in the Pacific Islands region, considering it "of significant strategic interest".

Hugging the equator, the Federated States of Micronesia are scattered along nearly 3,000 kilometres (1,900 miles) of the Pacific, a significant area given Sino-American disputes over freedom of navigation.

Duelling charm offensives

Washington is no stranger to the Federation - which brings together four island states and more than 600 islands and atolls - thanks to a compact that guarantees US development aid and military protection.

Formerly part of the Caroline Islands, which were American trust territories, the federation and other nations signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States on gaining independence more than three decades ago.

Pompeo announced that "the US has begun negotiations on extending our respective compacts of free association with each country".

China has launched a regional charm offensive that has alarmed the Trump administration, offering infrastructure loans and seemingly trying to have the Marshall Islands and Palau break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

"The United States can no longer afford to take the Pacific Islands for granted," said Economy.

At times, the United States has looked to these island states at the United Nations - where their voice is equal to any other state - in looking for support for issues such as recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

But the major point of difference remains climate change, an existential challenge for low-lying nations but a trend that the Trump administration has variously dismissed as a hoax or unimportant.

"We did talk about climate change, we talked about the concerns about rising sea level here," Pompeo said, attempting to square the circle following talks.

Story highlights

The diplomatic courtship follows a visit by Pacific Island leaders to the White House earlier this year, part of America's drive for a "free and open" region.