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Don't ignore Micronesia

By Anthony Bergin

The strategic significance of Micronesia is rising and Australia is unwise to disregard the region. It is, almost by definition, remote and thinly populated. Yet the US military plans to stay on Guam (the largest island in the Mariana group and a US protectorate) and is now in the midst of a major military build-up. Guam’s geography and American sovereignty allow it to serve as a major logistic base for forward deployed US aircraft and ships in the western Pacific.

In the case of a contemporary conflict in east Asia, US forces in Japan would take action. But backup forces in Guam would provide support to places such as the South China Sea and Taiwan, with shorter flying and sailing times than forces based in Hawaii or the US west coast.

Micronesia has been used in the past as an invasion route to Papua New Guinea and an attack route to Australia. It is an important strategic axis where the interests of China, Japan, Taiwan and the US, as well as several south-east Asian countries, intersect. Kwajalein Atoll in Micronesia is home to a US test site for ballistic missiles launched from the US.

Micronesia is comprised of thousands of small islands in the north Pacific. Five of the 16 independent and self-governing states of the Pacific’s main political grouping, the Pacific Islands Forum, are Micronesian. Two US territories, Guam and the Northern Marianas, are associate members of the forum.

The waters in the north Pacific are among the world’s most productive fishing grounds, and what happens to tuna stocks there has an impact on the broader Pacific region. An important tuna management body, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, is located in Micronesia.

Transnational criminal groups from the Philippines, South America, Taiwan, China and Japan operate in Micronesia (a maritime drug route runs through the area), but law enforcement is poorly equipped to deal with them.

Under the terms of the US Compacts of Free Association with Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, the US has defence responsibilities for each. Many young Micronesians join the US military.

US grants account for about 60 per cent of government budgets in these Pacific nations. But substantial US direct subsidies are slated to end in 2023, when a US-managed sovereign trust fund for each is meant to underpin further development.

These strategically located islands will still require external support for their national defence. China is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its diplomatic relationship with the Federated States of Micronesia.

Guam is the centrepiece of US-led north Pacific security. It was a key base supporting B-52 bombing operations during the Vietnam War. It has a population of 180,000. More than 6000 are US military personnel, who call themselves ‘‘the tip of the spear’’. It was B-52s from Guam that challenged China’s 2013 declaration of an air defence identification zone. Responding to North Korea’s provocations, the US Army has deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile battery to Guam. The US is transferring a fourth Los Angeles class submarine there. About 5000 marines from Okinawa will relocate to the island at cost of $US8.6 billion ($11 billion), of which Japan will fund US$3.1 billion.

Guam is becoming like Hawaii before World War II: a mixture of holiday destination and military base, but with the military infrastructure becoming bigger and bigger. There are already large numbers of Japanese, Korean and potentially huge numbers of Chinese tourists (a direct flight from Shanghai to Guam recently opened). Guam’s 2020 tourism master plan is for 2 million business and leisure visitors annually. It already gets 250 flights a week. (Australia has only two direct flights each week). China wants to build a billion-dollar, 10,000 room mega-resort casino and shopping complex on the tiny Micronesian island of Yap.

Guam is also becoming more strategically important for Japan as a military training area. Many of Japan’s mainland military bases are near residential areas, fisheries and crowded airspace. This places restrictions on Japanese training capabilities.

In addition, Guam offers less constrained airspace and bombing ranges for the air forces of Thailand, Singapore and South Korea. ASEAN states could come together for amphibious operations training in Guam. Our assistance to Micronesia is through the Pacific Patrol Boat Program (one boat in Palau, three in the Federated States of Micronesia [FSM] and one in the Marshalls, accompanied by naval advisers). It’s been a catalyst for good relations between Australia and Micronesia.

Despite Micronesia’s growing strategic importance, Australia’s engagement is surprisingly underdone.

Canberra’s diplomatic footprint in the region is tiny so its ability to influence regional developments is small. Our Pohnpei-based Ambassador is accredited to the FSM, the Marshall Islands and Palau, as well as serving as the Consul-General to Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Australia does not have a defence adviser based in Micronesia. The federal police recently withdrew their transnational crime adviser after six years. There are many natural hazards in the area, yet we do little to assist in disaster preparedness and response. Last November, Radio Australia’s FM service in the north Pacific was switched off which the ABC claimed was due to budget cuts. This went down very badly with the office of the President of Palau.

Guam’s profile as a strategic hub is rising. Australian, US and Japanese air forces have conducted modest trilateral air defence exercises in Guam.

In an ideal world, Australia would increase its influence in and contribution to the region by establishing a consulate in Guam with an Australian senior defence or foreign affairs liaison officer.

This would deepen our relationship with the US and assist generally with burden sharing in the Pacific. The Australian Federal Police might want a presence on Guam to work across Micronesia on transnational crime.

We could do better by heeding the late Dirk Ballendorf, the legendary Guamanian historian and pioneer in the field of Micronesian studies who died almost two years ago. He spent a lifetime, from his base at the University of Guam, telling all who’d listen about the special nature of this part of the Pacific. Micronesia is more than interesting, it is part of our region, it’s strategically significant and, although it doesn’t make headlines, we shouldn’t take it for granted.

Originally published: Australian Financial Review, 30 Jan 2015