Opening photo: An aerial view of Colonia on the island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia. Photo by tank200bar

By Andrew Posner

Just north of the equator in the Pacific—the largest and deepest of the world’s oceans—is a vast nation defined not only by its land (607 islands which cover just 700 sq. km) but by the 2 million sq. km of ocean over which these islands are dispersed. The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is made up of four island states in the Micronesia sub-region of Oceania—Micronesia is both the region and the informal name for the FSM. Micronesia includes U.S. territories Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the independent nations of the FSM, Republic of Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), Kiribati, and Nauru. Palau, RMI, and the FSM collectively are known as the Freely Associated States because of their Compacts of Free Association, which grant the United States special rights in their Exclusive Economic Zones in return for protecting the Freely Associated States as if they were U.S. territory.  

The FSM is a young nation with a young population; more than 46 percent of its 114,000 citizens are under age 25. It is strategically located, with a bright future and strong and deep ties to the United States. As an especially vulnerable island nation, the FSM is working to navigate the rising specters of climate change and food insecurity. President David Panuelo recently addressed world leaders at the Nobel Prize Summit, imploring them to act on immediate, necessary changes to avert catastrophic damage.   

People in the Micronesian sub-region are believed to have come from modern-day Vanuatu and Fiji around 1,000 B.C.E. Beginning in the 1500s, the Spanish made many visits to the islands that comprise the modern-day FSM, all of which became known as the Caroline Islands in 1686 in honor of Spain’s King Charles II. Colonial control passed from Spain to Germany in 1899. In 1914, with Germany embroiled on the battlefields of World War I, Japan seized the islands and remained in control until after the war under a League of Nations Mandate. They maintained this control until the start of the Second World War. 

After World War II, the islands of current-day FSM became part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, with the United States as the administering trustee. The FSM entered into a Compact of Free Association with the United States, which took effect in 1986 and included provisions on government relations and defense as well as 15 years of substantial financial assistance. An Amended Compact entered into force in 2004; while most of the Amended Compact’s provisions do not have an end date, the financial assistance provisions run through 2023 and are currently being renegotiated. Compact financial assistance is administered by the Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs through the Joint Economic Management Committee for the FSM.  

The four states of the FSM—Pohnpei, Chuuk, Yap, and Kosrae—each have a mix of unique peoples, languages, and cultures. Pohnpei is home to the capital city, Palikir, and UNESCO World Heritage site Nan Madol, referred to as the “Venice of the Pacific,” and is an Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation site. Yap is famous for its stone money, one of the earliest known forms of currency. Chuuk is known for its world-class wreck diving, with dozens of military vessels, merchant vessels, and military aircraft sunk in its lagoon, an extraordinary waterscape for divers and historians alike. Kosrae is home to the Yela Ka Forest, one of the last remaining ka (terminalia carolinensis) forests. These unique trees, known for a wide, at times hollow trunk, provided hardwood for native populations to build outrigger canoes, furniture, and flooring. 

The FSM has one of the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zones, with waters rich in sea life. The island of Pohnpei is a commercial fishing hub, locally supplying parrotfish and exporting skipjack tuna to Asia and the United States. Coral atolls support a tremendous variety of fish, crabs, and mollusks. Tourism is a strong potential growth industry in much of the FSM.  

One key to increasing economic growth in the FSM is creating opportunities for women and girls. Embassy Kolonia is overseeing part of a $2.5 million Department of State grant to the International Office of Migration to support women’s economic development across the Freely Associated States. The grant supports local NGOs, raises awareness of gender discrimination, and teaches women about finance, banking, advertising, and small grant access. 

Nicole Yamase, a Micronesian Ph.D. student at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and a Young Pacific Leader alumna, made history as the first Pacific Islander to explore Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, March 7. It is the world’s deepest known place, nearly 11,000 meters below the ocean’s surface. 

“The significance of the trip for me and the FSM was to show the world how our ancestors continue to shape who we are today,” she said about her journey. “And although we are known to be a cluster of small islands, we are giants through our collective achievements.” 

Ambassador Carmen G. Cantor and her team are working on several projects to support women’s empowerment. The embassy is now in year two of partnering with the International Visitor Leadership Program alumna-led #BlackOutViolencePohnpei campaign to raise awareness about domestic and gender-based violence issues, which was taken up by other embassies in the region as well. The 2020 National Day of the Girl event included an embassy-hosted superhero fun run/walk with the theme, “My Voice, Our Equal Future.” It was a tremendous partnership with the local and federal government and businesses, bringing 800 participants together. Embassy Kolonia was also instrumental in re-starting the Pohnpei Girl Scouts.     

Traditional leadership on the islands remains influential. Cantor brought a majority-women delegation to visit each royal family of the five municipalities on Pohnpei island and the king of Pingelap, one of Pohnpei state’s outer islands. These visits were unprecedented and impactful—to date, no women have been elected to FSM’s unicameral Congress, and one king noted it was the first time in his life he hosted such a group—solidifying U.S. relationships with FSM traditional leaders and deepening the post’s understanding of local politics. Her visits were so successful that, as ambassador, she was given several traditional titles.

The coronavirus has not reached the FSM, as it swiftly closed its borders in March 2020 to all travelers, including its own citizens. However, the pandemic has still had an impact. The FSM’s total ban on travel gave the two governments time to protect citizens’ health while upgrading laboratories, training health professionals, and vaccinating the population against COVID-19. The interagency U.S. government effort is spearheaded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coordinated closely with Embassy Kolonia. HHS is providing vaccines and sufficient supplies to vaccinate 100 percent of eligible adults in the FSM. 

To help reach FSM citizens and the large diaspora, Cantor secured an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor on the pandemic. Their seven-minute interview reached nearly 40,000 people when it played on Embassy Kolonia’s Facebook page in January. The interview was tremendously helpful in addressing people’s concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines that America provided to the FSM and encouraged people in the FSM to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The video convinced the “king of kings” and his wife in Pohnpei to be photographed getting vaccinated, which greatly influenced his fellow citizens and bumped up vaccinations significantly.  

The FSM has few players in the media sphere: a single newspaper, the Kaselehlie Press, published twice monthly; FSM government-run AM radio on three of four islands; and a single television station. As a result, each of these media outlets has outsized importance. Cantor brought attention to key areas of mutual interest across these platforms. The Embassy Kolonia Facebook page is an important outreach tool and has engaged thousands of FSM citizens on topics vital to the bilateral relationship, such as USAID and FSM partnerships to build resilience against climate change. Educational content is also valued, and Cantor’s interview with U.S. Astronaut José Hernandez to celebrate International Day of Human Space Flight was a huge hit.

The ambassador’s weekly radio show, “American Waves,” the only radio show done by a resident diplomat in the FSM, brings lively and engaging programming to FSM listeners. High-profile guests join the ambassador to talk music and highlight U.S. efforts in the FSM. Soundcloud is being used to expand reach, including to the large FSM diaspora in the United States. 

A critical U.S.-FSM partnership is led by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Coast Guard Sector Guam has an area of responsibility that spans almost 5 million sq. km—about two-thirds the size of the continental United States. The vast region and limited number of assets make search and rescue extremely challenging. The USCG works closely with the FSM government to build capacity as well as to conduct maritime search and rescue, ensure the safety and security of ports for vital maritime commerce, and counter illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in the FSM’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The “orange boat initiative,” an effort to paint the interior of skiffs common throughout the FSM bright orange to be more easily seen from the sky during searches, has resulted in multiple FSM citizens being located and rescued more quickly than skiffs that had not been painted. The USCG also flew the first inbound passenger flights to the FSM since March 2020, bringing FSM citizens and both U.S. and Australian diplomats and family members to Pohnpei, May 2021.

The incredibly close ties forged between the FSM and the United States are what stands out in this relationship. Under the Compact, eligible FSM citizens can travel to live, work, and study in the United States without a visa, and many FSM citizens reside across the United States. FSM citizens contribute to mutual defense, serving in the U.S. Armed Forces at higher per capita rates than many U.S. states. These people-to-people ties are the bedrock foundation of the exceptionally close relationship between the two countries. 

“We have a unique, historic, and special relationship with the Federated States of Micronesia as one of the Freely Associated States,” said Senior Advisor and Co-Lead Negotiator for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Ambassador Karen B. Stewart on her work leading the current Compact renegotiations. “Our strong bonds and deep friendships are underpinned by the Compact of Free Association and its related agreements. Through our current negotiations regarding expiring provisions related to U.S. economic assistance and certain federal programs and services, we seek to reaffirm our close cooperation in support of prosperity, stability, and security in the Pacific, while strengthening our people-to-people ties.”

Andrew Posner is a public affairs officer at Embassy Kolonia.

Map produced by the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues.

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