Earlier this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said negotiations have begun with three Pacific island nations to renew a national security agreement. Under the terms of the deal, dubbed the Compact of Free Association (CFA), the U.S. military would get exclusive access to airspace and territorial waters of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau.
The intention to counter China with this deal was made rather explicit. “I’m pleased to announce the United States has begun negotiations on extending our compacts…. they sustain democracy in the face of Chinese efforts to redraw the Pacific,” Pompeo said in his statement announcing the CFA talks.
The administration has been reaching out diplomatically to Pacific nations for a while now. Laying the foundations for the current negotiations, U.S. President Donald Trump in May hosted the leaders of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau—a rare state visit for such small countries.
Indeed, Trump and his team see these pacts as central to its counter-China strategy. Instead of facing China alone, the goal is to collect as much support from countries throughout the Pacific region. This was the goal of U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on his recent visit to Australia, where he described China’s policies as both “aggressive” and “destabilizing.”
Not all administration efforts to build Pacific security pacts have been successful. Shortly after Esper left Australia, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that American ballistic missiles will not be deployed in his country.
While there have been ups and downs in America’s push for allies in the Pacific, what the U.S. has going for it is a general recognition that China has been on an increasingly aggressive path—Australia being a case in point. Despite a long history of economic and diplomatic ties, relations between Australia and China began to deteriorate in 2018. Canberra, Australia’s capital, insists that Beijing had been systematically interfering in its internal affairs.