16 June 2020

Why the Compacts of Free Association Matter to Washington

A timely treatment of a vital American interest, one that the Trump Administration has rightly prioritized.

Grant Wyeth, Why the Compacts of Free Association Matter to Washington,” The Diplomat, 9 June 2020.

With its eyes on China, the United States seeks to reaffirm its presence in the western Pacific.

Last week, virtual meetings were held between officials from the U.S. State Department and representatives of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. The meetings were part of the process for renegotiating the Compacts of Free Association that these countries have with the United States, which are currently due to expire at the end of 2023 (2024 for Palau). These treaties provide the Pacific Island nations with considerable economic support, but also give the U.S. strategic access to their surrounding waters and airspace.

Efforts to reestablish these agreements well ahead of their expiry can be seen as a sign of the United States seeking to reaffirm its presence in the western Pacific. These three Pacific Island nations have gained increasing importance to the foreign policy and security interests of the United States in recent years as the region has become a more contested space.

These compacts form a significant component of Washington’s military primacy in the Indo-Pacific. They allow for the United States to maintain lines of communication into both the East China and South China Seas and sea-lanes that account for most of the commodity trade that moves through Asia. Although the norms that the United States has guaranteed through this region are currently under threat from revisionist activity on the part of China, the U.S. presence is part of what prevents these norms from being completely undermined.

The Micronesian region, with its strategic location between major maritime routes, its significant natural resources, and states with diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, has made it of considerable interest to China. The region forms the “second island chain” in Chinese strategic thinking, which extends from Japan down to the island of New Guinea. The U.S. presence in this chain prevents China from being able to project power out into the open seas, but also, most importantly, restricts China’s ability to absorb Taiwan by force.

These circumstances make weakening the islands’ relationship with the United States crucial to China’s strategic aims. Beijing is already offering incentives to the region in order to try and facilitate a break. Although it currently does not have diplomatic relations with either Palau or the Marshall Islands, China has recently been highly active in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). China has built personal residences for the president, vice president, the parliament’s speaker, and the country’s chief justice, as well as a new sports stadium. It has also provided funding for the maintenance of roads and airfields in outer islands, and donated ships in order to improve transport between islands. … … …


Andrew Rhodes, “The Second Island Cloud: A Deeper and Broader Concept for American Presence in the Pacific Islands,” Joint Force Quarterly 95 (Fourth Quarter 2019): 46-53.

Andrew Rhodes wrote this essay while a student at the U.S. Naval War College. It won the Strategic Research Paper category of the 2019 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategic Essay Competition.

In the early 20th century, the visionary Marine officer Earl “Pete” Ellis compiled remarkable studies of islands in the Western Pacific and considered the practical means for the seizure or defense of advanced bases. A century after Ellis’s work, China presents new strategic and operational challenges to the U.S. position in Asia, and it is time for Washington to develop a coherent strategy, one that will last another 100 years, for the islands of the Western Pacific. It has become common to consider the second island chain as a defining feature of Pacific geography, but when Ellis mastered its geography, he saw not a “chain,” but a “cloud.” He wrote in 1921 that the “Marshall, Caroline, and Pelew Islands form a ‘cloud’ of islands stretching east and west.” His apt description of these archipelagoes serves well for a broader conception of the islands in, and adjacent to, traditional definitions of the second island chain. A new U.S. strategy should abandon the narrow lens of the “chain” and emphasize a broader second island cloud that highlights the U.S. regional role and invests in a resilient, distributed, and enduring presence in the Pacific.

The United States has often been of two minds about its role in Asia, and recent heated debate on the future of U.S. security commitments in the region is no exception. This pendulum has swung before, from the heavy presence lasting from World War II through Vietnam to a partial retrenchment under Richard Nixon’s Guam Doctrine, and back toward statements of a greater strategic emphasis on the region under the Obama administration’s “Rebalance to Asia.” Despite some inconsistent messaging on military alliances and trade relationships, the Trump administration has indicated a major focus on Asia in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and its strategy for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Regardless of whether the United States pursues broad engagement with the region, focuses on military containment of China, or decides to allow a larger Chinese sphere of influence in the Western Pacific, the second island cloud represents critical geography for what Vice President Mike Pence has called an “ironclad commitment” to the region. To demonstrate this commitment and respond to operational imperatives, there is a compelling need to get serious about the second island cloud—we need to identify the challenges to a sustained or enhanced U.S. presence and to pursue near-term opportunities that advance U.S. national interests. A strategy for the second island cloud should deepen the unique U.S. relationship with these islands and reframe the strategic discussion with a broader definition that includes valuable islands excluded from the second island chain.

Origins and Interpretations

The second island chain has no official standing among geographers or international organizations but has served as shorthand for the line of islands extending from the Japanese mainland, through the Nanpõ Shotõ, the Marianas, and the western Caroline Islands, before terminating somewhere in eastern Indonesia. The second island chain lies to the east; the first island chain, which is also imprecise, generally comprises a line from southern Japan through the Ryukyus and Taiwan, terminating in the Philippines or Borneo. The island chains took on strategic importance for the United States when it annexed the Philippines and Guam after the Spanish-American War. The fortification of these outposts was a central feature of negotiations in the 1920s that vainly sought to prevent military competition and conflict between the United States and Japan. Michael Green notes that as much as many planners of the interwar period regretted the decision not to establish robust fortifications of strategic points such as Guam, the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaties incentivized key innovations in fleet mobility, such as underway replenishment, to mitigate against the threat to fixed fueling points.

The notorious geopolitician Karl Haushofer was one of the first to describe the island chain concept, calling them “offshore island arcs.” Haushofer served as German military attaché in Tokyo before he established his Institute for Geopolitics at the University of Munich and gained influence in the 1930s with Nazi leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess. Leading architects of the post–World War II Pacific security architecture, including Douglas MacArthur and Dean Acheson, also invoked the island chains. Chinese strategists have focused contemporary attention on the island chains, and it is Chinese adaptations and descriptions of the island chains that have reintroduced the concept to American strategists. Throughout the remarkable modernization of China’s military since the 1990s, its leaders have emphasized the military challenge of U.S. and allied deployments in the island chains and the strategic importance of the waters they enclose. A central figure in the promulgation of the island chains in Chinese geostrategy and military planning was Admiral Liu Huaqing, often referred to as the “Father of the People’s Liberation Army Navy,” who served as its commander in the 1980s and then as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in the 1990s. One leading Chinese scholar on seapower references control over the Pacific islands as key to U.S.-led efforts to “contain China,” invokes the operational imperative to “break through” the island chains, and also highlights the power of small islands to confer broad “jurisdictional sea area.” Andrew Erickson and Joel Wuthnow catalog these discussions of the island chains concept in Chinese sources and lay out three ways that Chinese authors have thought about island chains: as barriersspringboards, and benchmarks. These three concepts provide a useful framework for not only understanding Chinese perspectives but also analyzing U.S. interests in the region. A durable U.S. regional strategy should reject what have become Chinese concepts of the islands and redefine the geography as a cloud, then consider the various roles of the second island cloud as a barrier, springboard, and benchmark. … … …


A stable footing in the second island cloud is worth these costs and risks, as it can serve as a strategic position and powerful symbol that transcends the operational imperatives to balance Chinese military capabilities in the near term. In the first 50 years after the United States took possession of Guam, Ellis saw the rise of Japan and envisioned key geographic aspects of its defeat that took place two decades after his death. In 1942, geostrategist Nichols Spykman foresaw that technological change and political shifts could one day make Chinese airpower more dominant than British, Japanese, or American seapower in what he called the “Asian Mediterranean.” In only 30 years, China changed from a strategic partner in the Cold War to a peer rival in a newly bipolar world. China is pursuing a much more expansive role on the international stage with new security relationships and overseas bases and is even contemplating military alliances. The coming decades will see major structural changes to the international system, and a truly long-term strategy should secure America’s Pacific position through and beyond the current competition.

Ely Ratner argues that “it is imperative that the United States stop China’s advances toward exerting exclusive and dominant control over key geographic regions.” With growing Chinese investment and influence throughout the Pacific islands, the second island cloud can play a central role in near-term efforts to avoid a power vacuum and create what Ratner calls “spheres of competition.” The current administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act passed by Congress have brought important focus to the policy discussion on the region, but sustained energy is required to realize these ambitions. In addition to developing new partnerships, Washington should double down where it is already strong—the second island cloud is squarely aligned to the United States, but U.S. policy must work hard to sustain that alignment and build on it to our advantage.

Ellis’s description of an island cloud aptly captures the complexity and diversity of the key geography and provides a framework for lasting and dispersed strength—chains fail with a single weak link, but clouds are resilient. The argument for a durable commitment to the second island cloud in the 21st century is much the same as what Ellis wrote in 1913: “Once secure it will stand as a notice to all the world that America is in the Western Pacific to stay.”