Pompeo makes history in Pohnpei, courts Pacific allies

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks after a news conference with Micronesia's President David Panuelo (L), Marshall Islands' President Hilda Heine (2nd R) and Palau's Vice President Raynold Oilouch (R) in Kolonia on Monday. -AFP

POHNPEI, MICRONESIA - Mike Pompeo became the first US Secretary of State to visit Micronesia Monday, as Washington's signaled a renewed interest in its Pacific allies, no matter how small, in the face of regional competition with China.

Pompeo touched down on the paradise island of Pohnpei and spent a few hours meeting leaders from Micronesia's Federated States, as well as neighboring micro-states like Palau and the Marshall Islands.

"Your small islands are big strongholds of freedom," he said, while encouraging American tourists to visit.

The diplomatic courtship follows a visit by Pacific Island leaders to the White House earlier this year, part of America's drive for a "free and open" region to counter China's increasingly muscular and expansionist policies.

"We want to help nations of the Indo-Pacific to continue their decades long rise and maintain their sovereignty both in the political and economic spheres," he said.

"We know China seeks to engage and to influence this region," Pompeo added, expressing confidence that Pacific islands would understand "other Pacific democracies, are the best partnerships."

The President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo tried to play down concerns, saying "our relation with the US is first and foremost", while adding that the relationship with China was purely "economic and technical cooperation."

Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations told AFP that over the past year, the US had "worked aggressively" to shore up its position in the Pacific Islands region, considering it "of significant strategic interest".

Hugging the equator, the Federated States of Micronesia are scattered along nearly 3,000 kilometers of the Pacific, a significant area given Sino-American disputes over freedom of navigation. -AFP