Pacific Island countries have strong, longstanding ties to the US military, as countries such as Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands send more soldiers per capita to serve in the US military than any American state. This commitment to the United States is underscored by the fact that these soldiers also have higher casualty rates than any US state at around six times the national rate. In addition, the US military is the largest employer in the Marshall Islands after the government.
This military service and bravery by non-citizens is made possible by the unique Compact of Free Association, or COFA, relationship that Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands share with the United States. As a result of this compact, citizens from these three countries can serve in the US military and work in the United States without visas, while the United States provides financial assistance and gains military access in the Pacific.
In other countries across the region, however, new military ties are also strengthening. The Republic of Fiji Military Forces were invited to send candidates for training at West Point this past winter. The selection process took place in January 2019, and the successful candidates will undergo military officer training in the United States. This represents a first in the military relations between Fiji and the United States, although the defense relationship between the two has grown rapidly in recent years since the restoration of democratic elections to Fiji in 2014.
2019 has featured a number of other firsts as well. In March, four Tongan Marines competed against eight Nevada Army National Guard Soldiers in central Nevada for a Best Warrior contest, competing in completely unfamiliar weather and conditions. This was possible due to the partnership between the state of Nevada and both the Republic of Fiji and Kingdom of Tonga that extends to military and civilian spheres. Nevada has been partners with the Kingdom of Tonga since 2014, with Fiji only entering into a maritime security MOU with Nevada in April.
The US military also sent personnel to Palau for the first time in 37 years in April as part of the Pacific Pathways exercise aimed at coordinating military and humanitarian assistance capabilities. While there, soldiers spent a week performing health assessments for humans and animals as well as infrastructure improvements, mainly in the states of Gnaremlengui, Koror, Peleliu, and Angaur. This exercise involved around 200 US Army personnel and 50 Palauan participants, and was particularly significant given the timing of this exercise; 2019 is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Palau by US forces, the 25th anniversary of Palauan independence, and the 25th anniversary of US-Palauan diplomatic relations.
This wide range of new military activities across the Pacific region demonstrates how vital US security commitments are to the region, and how interconnected the United States is with various Pacific Island countries and to the Indo-Pacific region.
Julia Wargo is a former East-West Center Young Professionals Program participant.