Click here to listen to the audio file.
Moderator: Good morning everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and the United States. Today, we are pleased to be joined by two speakers who are speaking from the Washington, DC area. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Chief of Staff Pamela Powers; and State Department Director for Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Islands, Nicholas Dean.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from our speakers, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.
Please note that we’d ask you to please try to limit your questions to just the one question if possible so that everyone can participate. Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over first to Mr. Nicholas Dean. Mr. Dean, please go ahead.
Director Dean: Thank you very much, Zia, and thank you colleagues and friends for joining this call.
I’d like to offer some comments in terms of a framework for our discussion, in terms of specifically regarding U.S. commitment to the Pacific, our role in the Pacific, and our specific relationship with the Freely Associated States.
The first thing I’d like to say is the perspective of the United States is as a Pacific nation, a Pacific nation with deep and longstanding ties to the Pacific region which will only grow over time. From our perspective, the Pacific Islands are an essential part of our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific in which independent nations with diverse cultures and different aspirations can prosper side-by-side in freedom and in peace.
The United States continues to be one of the top development partners to the Pacific Islands. During the last fiscal year, we provided more than $350 million in projects, grant assistance, and operations that directly benefited the people of the Pacific. Our close ties with Pacific Island nations stretch back to our shared heritage as sea-faring nations, and were forged even closer during the Second World War. Many of our Pacific partners and the United States will celebrate the 75th anniversary of important World War II battles this year.
Our close cooperation and support for good governance, security, disaster reduction, and economic development will continue. We have many partners in the Pacific with our Pacific Island country friends and neighbors and with countries active in the region including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France and the European Union, as well as the multilateral development banks.
Specifically to the Freely Associated States, our history with the Western Pacific region since World War II and as a friend and ally of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau dates from before the establishment of our Compacts of Free Association. We are linked to the region through decades of history and committed to the shared security and prosperity of this region, and we share the objectives of respect across the region for sovereignty, rule of law, fair and reciprocal trading frameworks, freedom of navigation, and private sector led development.
The specific nature of our relationship with the Federated States of Micronesia dates from the same period in the mid-1980s when we concluded a Compact of Free Association based on those shared values. That framework has allowed us to work closely with the Federated States of Micronesia as crucial partners in keeping the Western Pacific and Indo-Pacific region free and open. That work takes place in the region, at the United Nations, through promoting maritime security, combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and through tackling transnational crime.
Our partnership with the Federated States of Micronesia is intended to increase economic development, to improve health and education, to promote the role of women in leadership, and to increase resilience to disasters.
Our bottom line, our objective, is to ensure that the Pacific Islands remain free and secure, and that our partnership is intended to support the national sovereignty, security, economic development, and prosperity of the region.
We have always been an active contributor to regional stability and are committed and in fact, under the terms of our Compact, responsible for the security and defense of the Federated States of Micronesia. It’s a particular feature of our relationship that citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia and the other two Freely Associated States – the Marshall Islands and Palau – serve in the U.S. military in fact in higher numbers proportionally than many U.S. states.
Perhaps that would be the moment to pass it over to my colleague from Veterans Affairs to offer some words in that area.
Chief of Staff Powers: Thanks, Nick. This is Pamela Powers. I’m the Chief of Staff at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Secretary and I are delighted and proud to be leading the U.S. delegation to the Presidential Inauguration. The Secretary is the first VA Secretary to visit the Federated States of Micronesia and one reason he is so proud to go is the connection between the Federated States and the U.S. Armed Forces. As Nick mentioned, citizens of this region work [inaudible] U.S. Armed Services in proportionately high numbers and we are honored by [inaudible]. So with that, I look forward to your questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Our first question will go to Mr. Ben Kesling from The Wall Street Journal.
Question: Hi. Thanks for doing this call and thanks for taking my questions. Specifically related to the FSM visit. The last time I spoke with Mr. Wilkie, he said there were no concrete plans afoot for expanding VA’s presence in Micronesia aside from maybe doing more telemedicine.
Chief of Staff Powers, can you tell me if there are any concrete VA plans that might be announced on this trip for expanding coverage in Micronesia or any of the other territories having to do with Guam or any other U.S. territories?
And a follow-on question for the State Department is, has there been any movement on renegotiating the Compact itself that’s set to expire in 2023? The last time I spoke with the folks from Micronesia they said there hadn’t been any movement on the U.S. side for that. Thank you very much.
Chief of Staff Powers: I’ll go ahead and answer the first part of that question. Thanks, Ben.
I would say that that is one of the main reasons why we’re going, other than to attend the inauguration. Secretary Wilkie really values the important relationship that VA has with [inaudible] for the leaders of this area, and he looks forward to hearing all that they have, all their issues, concerns, and how we can help.
He has [focused] on ways to improve service to our veterans, but until we really get on the ground and talk to veterans and their leaders, he’s going to maintain his objectivity. We’ll find out what we discover there and [inaudible].
Director Dean: Thank you for your question. I’d also like to back up a step and frame the engagement of the United States in the recent past with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Freely Associated States, recalling the visit of the three presidents of the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Marshall Islands to Washington just this past May and their meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office along with a number of other Cabinet officials.
I think what that expresses is the commitment and engagement the United States has with the Freely Associated States, certainly including the Federated States of Micronesia. The Compacts that you alluded to, the Compacts persist in perpetuity and that is, certainly our commitment is equally perpetual. You may be referring specifically to some of the economic support provisions, some of which expire in 2023.
The United States and the Federated States of Micronesia have constant contact in terms of our shared objectives and shared undertakings, and that is the focus that we are very much maintaining through the visit of Secretary Wilkie to the Federated States of Micronesia. This is the first-ever attendance by a U.S. Cabinet Official at the inauguration of the Federated States of Micronesia which is a demonstration of our respect for our partner and an indication of our commitment to this relationship being a forever relationship.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next we will go to Giff Johnson from the Marshall Islands Journal.
Question: Thank you very much. This is Giff Johnson, the Editor of the Marshall Islands Journal. I’m interested to know specifically the concerns of the three Freely Associated States related heavily to perceived shortfalls and what the trust funds will provide post-2023, and also the expiring economic provisions of the Compact.
We see the Senate is talking about this in recent days, so do we think the administration is going to start addressing any specifics on either the trust fund or a third economic agreement after 2023?
Director Dean: I can take that, I’d be happy to. I think in terms of your reference to the Senate considering legislation, that is not in our lane. What I can say is that the United States — I tried to convey and perhaps I can put it in clearer terms — the level of engagement between, and among, our governments on the subject of our existing relationship and our future path. That is something that we’re very focused on and have very intensive engagement on a regular basis.
Again, the sustained engagement by the United States with the leadership of the Federated States of Micronesia and the leadership of the Republic of Marshall Islands and Palau is all directed to the fundamental goal of securing our partnership over the long haul. That is very much our central focus.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to John Power from the South China Morning Post.
Question: Hi, thanks for taking the call. It was recently reported that the U.S. Coast Guard had reported increased Chinese presence around U.S. Pacific territories. I was wondering if you could expand on that, and whether there are indications that Beijing is interested in exerting its influence there, and perhaps coming between the U.S. and those territories and the Compact and Association that they have.
Director Dean: Perhaps I can touch on that, and I would go in a slightly different direction, which is maritime law enforcement as an issue for all Pacific Island countries and for all Pacific countries including the United States.
Maritime law enforcement is a subject that we focus on, certainly including through the important role of the Coast Guard in providing support to our partner countries, including the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
I think the focus of maritime law enforcement in particular on fisheries enforcement, preserving the livelihood of Pacific Island countries, is a very important, central pillar of our relationship, certainly with the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and Marshall Islands, but also with other Pacific Island countries with whom we have, what we call, shiprider Agreements which are arrangements under which we conduct Joint Maritime Law Enforcement Patrols.
Moderator: Many thanks. Next we have Dong Hyun Kim from Voice of America.
Question: My name is Dong Hyun Kim. Thank you for your participation. I have a question regarding the illegal North Korean-bound ship-to-ship policy. Although U.S. State Department has stressed that it would strengthen [inaudible] operation on North Korean ship-to-ship transfer in the Pacific area, we’ve seen many illegal vessels originate from the Pacific Islands, such as Fiji. Do you think that there is a loose end on the joint effort?
And the second question is, does the U.S. have concern that these illegal ship-to-ship [inaudible] are being used for luxury commodities? Being used also as weapons proliferation. Thank you.
Director Dean: Thank you. Perhaps I can touch on the aspect of ship registry and ship registration and the efforts that have been undertaken by many countries, including the United States and partner countries to implement UN Security Council Resolutions. That is an area where we have had very active engagement with Pacific Island countries, certainly including the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and Republic of Marshall Islands, specifically to address the question of ship registries and making sure that illicit use of ship registries is something that is illuminated and addressed. That’s a focus of cooperation that extends beyond the Freely Associated States through many partner countries also engaged in implementing UN Security Council Resolutions and certainly is an area where we have been both active and received very strong partnership from Pacific Island countries.
Moderator: Thank you very much. If we could go back to Ben Kesling from The Wall Street Journal with a follow-up question.
Question: Thank you. I’ve got a quick follow-up for the State Department on some of the initiatives in Oceania. Can we expect to see anytime in the near future, or possibly in this visit, a greater expansion of concrete military planning in the Federated States of Micronesia or elsewhere throughout Oceania? Whether it’s building new naval facilities, doing more EEZ protection schemes, any new shiprider agreements? Can you sort of raise the curtain on any concrete plans that might be announced now or in the near future?
Director Dean: The purpose of Secretary Wilkie’s trip is two-fold as my Veterans Affairs colleague underscored. The first is to pay respect to the President of Micronesia and the Congress of Micronesia at their inauguration. And the second is to address the concerns of veterans of U.S. Armed Services from across the Freely Associated States, all three countries.
In terms of the areas that you’ve touched on, the focus of the trip is specifically to represent the United States at the inauguration and to address these specific concerns of veterans of the United States Armed Services.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next we will go to Phuc Ngo Duy from Tahnh Nien News in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Question: Thank you very much. What kind of long-term strategy should the international community, could the U.S. apply because China is being coercive and aggressive behavior in South China Sea and also in the [South] Pacific. Thank you.
Director Dean: I’d like to speak specifically to the Pacific. I think the principal focus of the United States is partnership and presence. That would be a formulation that would resonate, and that is partnership with Pacific Island countries, and presence in the form of the United States exercising its rights as a seafaring nation. I think that’s been our consistent focus through time, and that will remain our focus.
Moderator: We’re getting close to the end of this call. Our next question will come from Elvis Chang from NTDAPTV in Taiwan.
Question: Thank you. My question is we know that islands in Pacific with diplomatic ties with Taiwan. So [inaudible] cooperation, we want to know what should Taiwan know about cooperation and the direction with United States in this region.
Director Dean: I think part of the question was the role of Taiwan in the region. I think the United States, if I could touch on that, supports the status quo and cross-straits relations including Taiwan’s international space, and views that as important to maintaining peace and stability. I think that’s our bottom line which has been very consistent through time. Taiwan, as the speaker mentioned, Taiwan in a number of different countries provides development assistance which is an important contribution.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next we’ll go to John Power again from the South China Morning Post with a follow-up question.
Question: Hi. It’s been reported that the Belt and Road Initiative from Beijing has made in-roads in Micronesia. Are you concerned about that? And what are Washington’s [inaudible]?
Director Dean: I tried to convey a sense in terms of the relationship between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia of perhaps, a family, might be the best way to describe it. I think that we – I don’t think, I know that our relationship has been strong through more than seven decades, certainly through close to 35 years of independent relationships with the sovereign, Federated States of Micronesia. Our relationship is founded on mutual respect and cooperation. We are very heavily engaged with the Federated States of Micronesia in its economic development and supporting the prosperity of the citizens of Micronesia. That’s where we maintain our focus. That will remain the case.
Moderator: Many thanks. If we can turn it over next to Danh Le Thanh from Zing News.
Question: I would like to ask if the Chinese harassing behavior with [inaudible] in South China Sea [inaudible] is a concern for for the U.S. [inaudible] exploration and cooperation in the region. And what [inaudible] for U.S. to encounter that China uses civilian forces, like the China Coast Guard, to harass other nations. Thank you.
Director Dean: Thank you. I’d like to speak to the specific trip that we’re discussing which is Secretary Wilkie’s trip to the Federated States of Micronesia and also to the relationship of the United States to the Federated States of Micronesia and the support that we provide the Federated States of Micronesia — mutual support in terms of ensuring its security and enforcing its maritime boundaries. That, I think, is probably the best way I could address your comments.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We’re just about out of time now so I’m going to wrap up the call if there are no further comments. That will conclude today’s call. I want to thank very much the Department of Veterans Affairs Chief of Staff Pamela Powers and the State Department Director for Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Islands Nicholas Dean. And I also want to thank all of you for participating in this call. Thank you very much, everybody.