The renegotiation of the Compacts of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau is on the fast track. Their critical importance is highlighted by Beijing's growing interest in the region. A new study has been released by the U.S. Institute of Peace on China's influence on the Freely Associated States.

The Peace Institute held a panel discussion in Washington today on the study. It included study group co-chairs, former congressman Dr. Robert Underwood, and former INDOPACOM commander Admiral Philip Davidson. Also on hand was Ambassador Joseph Yun, the special U.S. presidential envoy for compact negotiations.

Yun stated, "When I talk to FAS partners what they want is respect. I think respect is a very important concept," adding, "while they still rely on compact for economic assistance, they know they are strategically important."

This importance is underscored by continued Chinese engagement with the islands according to the study group report.  "Many leaders in the Micronesian region are grateful for the attention that Chinese influence has brought upon them, because now I think they feel that people are recognizing  their true value," Dr. Underwood said.

"The main point here is that there should be some sense of regard and respect as the ambassador has outlined, for the entities as they deal with these situations. They're not simply vassals of the United States and they're not kind of running interference for the United States, but instead are actually cooperating partners in this."

And the Compacts are complicated, they said, not simply straightforward economic assistance. Admiral Davidson says key to U.S. national defense are negotiated strategic rights and strategic denial rights. He says there are some military initiatives underway and opportunities for more, noting, "We've heard from the Republic of Palau and the president there who's asking for U.S. defense facilities and bases in his country and its something we need to be doing more of and certainly be aware of as we think about strategy for the United States and our long-term security interests."

"They also are in an area between Guam, our most important western military domestic facility, and again the first island chain of...Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines."

The strategic competition for the hearts and minds of the FSM people will require much more engagement by Washington, says Ambassador Yun, now and into the future. "It should not be about China, rather it should be about our own united states security self, Yun said. "Don't just pay attention every twenty years when we are renewing compact. Pay attention throughout."

The ambassador's goal is to have Compact agreements done with the FSM, Marshalls and Palau by the end of the year.