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Things to keep in mind when writing about the Indo-Pacific region



Things to keep in mind when writing about the Indo-Pacific region


Usually in my articles, I write with decision-makers as the intended rhetorical targets. Occasionally, I just try to provide information that may not be easy to find in the public domain.

But, the recent tragic murder of Rachelle Bergeron, who was an American serving as Acting Attorney General on Yap Island in the Federated States of Micronesia, was picked up by some major news sources in the United States that lack a familiarity with geography in general and this part of the world in particular. Some indeed would have a bit of difficulty even locating Hawaii on a map.


You obviously know which of the five boroughs of New York City is which, but most of you probably have never heard of Yap Island or even Micronesia before in your life. You may have gone to Google Maps since nobody uses Atlas books anymore to see if it was somewhere in the Caribbean or perhaps the Mediterranean.

But, you need also to keep your audience in mind. If you’re a good writer and you provide accurate information, your reach will be well beyond the eastern seaboard of the USA. If you write an article about Yap Island, expect it to be read by people on Yap Island. Also elsewhere in Micronesia. In Japan and other countries in the Pacific.

What seems so vague and foggy in your own mind will be crystal clear to those in proximity, along with those around the world who actually do understand the interconnectivity of global geopolitics. So, we will now look at some basic terminology relevant to this part of the world.


“An imaginary line drawn around the earth equally distant from both poles, dividing the earth into northern and southern hemispheres and constituting the parallel of latitude 0°.”


“The international date line is defined as an imaginary line that goes north and south through the Pacific Ocean; one day is on the east side of the line and the following day is on the west side.”


The coordinates of the location where the Equator and International Date Line intersect is at 0° latitude, 180° longitude. The International Date Line however has been redrawn in some places for political reasons. We’ll save the details of that for another discussion.

Everything above the Equator on the map is at North Latitude. All that lies below the Equator is at South Latitude. Therefore, Yap Island which is at about 9° N Lat is properly described as being in the North Pacific, not the South Pacific as many articles inaccurately state.

The International Date Line divides the Western Pacific from the Eastern Pacific. Hawaii is north of the Equator and east of the International Date Line. It can also very accurately be stated that the Federated States of Micronesia, including Yap Island, are in the Far Western Pacific.

Degrees of longitude are indicated as E Long to the west of the International Date Line and W Long to the east of the International Date Line. Yes, that is confusing and sounds paradoxical. It is literally where East Meets West.

From North America, you go west across the Pacific to reach the Far East. The Western Pacific is near Asia and Australia, whereas the Eastern Pacific extends to Latin America.


Geography on planet Earth is probably the second most mind-boggling thing to grasp. The hardest has to do with astronomy and the relative relationships of the Earth, Moon and Sun and the impact which that makes.

An otherwise educated and intelligent man with whom I once spoke absolutely could not comprehend that any two locations on Earth could be more than 12 hours time difference apart. I had just told him that it was a 15-hour time difference between California and the Philippines as we boarded our flight.

In what I call relative time, the Philippines is 9 hours earlier than the time in California [during DST], but because it is across the International Date Line, the actual time is 15 hours later. Got that?

New Zealand right now is just one hour earlier than Hawaii but it’s really 23 hours later because it’s tomorrow there. Ok, enough of that but I wanted just to demonstrate the significance of the International Date Line beyond mere terminology.


Keep in mind that the Equator, the International Date Line, parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude are only human constructs. They exist only on maps and in our minds. There is absolutely nothing physical on the surface of the planet marking their locations unless we put one there, which would be kind of hard to do in the Pacific Ocean by the way.

Tropic of Cancer

“The Tropic of Cancer is the circle marking the latitude 23.5 degrees north, where the sun is directly overhead at noon on June 21, the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere.”

Tropic of Capricorn

“The Tropic of Capricorn is the circle marking the latitude 23.5 degrees south where the sun is directly overhead at noon on December 21, the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere.”

These are the northernmost and southernmost points on Earth where the sun’s rays can be directly overhead at local noon.

Honolulu is at 21° N Lat within the tropics. Key West, Florida is at about 24.5° N Lat just outside the tropics.


Remember when it comes to longitude, there are only 180° in each direction from the Prime Meridian which runs through Greenwich, England. Due to the unique shape of the Earth, there are only 90° of latitude in each direction. The Arctic and Antarctic Circles are at 66.5° respectively. If you stand bundled up at the North Pole, every direction is south. At the South Pole, every direction is north.

After this basic background in World Geography, let’s look at some specific terminology that you need to know here in the Pacific Basin.


The Pacific Ocean north of the Equator.


The Pacific Ocean south of the Equator.


The Pacific Ocean west of the International Date Line.


The Pacific Ocean east of the International Date Line.


You can substitute the word Hemisphere for Pacific in the terms above to refer to regions of the Earth beyond the Pacific. The majority of world maps are Atlantic-centric with the Atlantic Ocean in the middle and the Western Hemisphere to the left and the Eastern Hemisphere to the right. But you can also obtain Pacific-centric maps. I personally much prefer the latter.


The nation of Kiribati [pronounced Kiri•bas] lies directly at the intersection of the Equator and the International Date Line and therefore is the only country on Earth in all four Hemispheres. I suppose one can technically break it down into Quadraspheres, but that is virtually never done in my experience. Depending upon your frame of reference, it’s usually either East or West or it is North or South rather than Northwest, Northeast, Southwest or Southeast.


Hawaii is in the North Pacific. That’s the best way to refer to it. As for Yap Island in the example above, I would suggest that the best way to refer to its location is in the Far Western Pacific.


“Oceania is a region made up of thousands of islands throughout the Central and South Pacific Ocean. It includes Australia, the smallest continent in terms of total land area. … Oceania also includes three island regions: Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia (including the U.S. state of Hawaii).”

So then, for practical purposes Oceania would refer to all the island nations and territories of the Pacific Basin collectively, though it more specifically refers to those in the South Pacific. You would not want to include Japan or Taiwan in that category. The Philippines is the boundary between the Pacific and Southeast Asia.


These are the three ethno-linguistic and cultural regions of the Pacific. I would recommend that those not fully versed in the cultural anthropology of this region to just try to avoid using those terms.

But one important caveat, please do distinguish between Micronesia as a region and the Federated States of Micronesia which is a sovereign nation, to be discussed more below.

Also, please note that French Polynesia is part of France and does not comprise the entirety of the Polynesian region.


It would be prohibitive and way beyond our scope to go into the status of each and every island in the Pacific. There are territories of the United States, New Zealand, Australia and France. Even Australia is part of the British Commonwealth and recognizes Queen Elizabeth as the Head of State, but I don’t want to open that can of worms here.


First of all, exercise due caution to carefully distinguish between the United States territory of American Samoa with capital at Pago Pago and the independent nation of Samoa [previously known as Western Samoa] with capital at Apia.

One interesting note considering our previous discussion of the International Date Line is that American Samoa is one hour earlier than Hawaii on this side of the International Date Line. Independent Samoa was also in the same time-zone but a few years ago chose to jump over to the other side and move things up a day. Nope, the island is still in the same place and didn’t move one inch. They just redrew the International Date Line between Samoa and American Samoa.

American Samoa is south of the Equator and therefore is accurately described as being in the South Pacific. Our other current territories in the Pacific are north of the Equator and west of the International Date Line. You can describe them as being in the North Pacific but, as I said, it is far more descriptive to say Far Western Pacific.


The Commonwealth of Guam is a current United States territory in the Mariana Islands. It is at about 13° N Lat.


The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands was previously part of the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands [TTPI]. When given a choice, it opted to become a United States Territory and Insular Possession similar to Guam.

The islands in CNMI that you will hear most about are Saipan, Tinian and Rota. Due to their being in a narrow band above the Equator, Guam and CNMI have a lot of typhoons. Hurricanes that approach Hawaii are less frequent and originate normally off the coast of Baja California in Mexico.

The outer and less inhabited islands of CNMI stretch northwest in the direction of Japan and the World War II battleground of Iwo Jima. The Mariana Trench, about 125 miles east of the Marianas goes down about 7 miles, the deepest in the world.


These are all the same kind of storm but in the Western Hemisphere, we call them hurricanes, whereas in the Eastern Hemisphere they are known as typhoons. Cyclones occur south of the Equator.


Whereas CNMI chose to become a United States territory, other islands made a different decision and now comprise three separate sovereign nations, all with their own Compact of Free Association with their former colonizing power.

Remember once again that all of these former territories ~ as well as Guam and CNMI ~ are part of the Micronesian Region of the Pacific Basin. But only one of them has the word Micronesia in its name.


FSM consists of four states which are, from east to west, Kosrae, Pohnpei [where the national capital Palikir is located], Chuuk [Truk] and Yap.


Palau chose not to join as part of FSM and is now an independent nation all its own.


Majuro is the capital of RMI. This nation consists of small atolls barely above sea level.


I have discussed some of these in the past and we’ll talk about others more in the future. But for recognition purposes, you should know that America controls these small specks of land in the Pacific Ocean. Some are uninhabited unless a yacht happens to dock there.

Wake Island is in a special category as a current focus of United States missile defense primarily against North Korea. It is also claimed by the Marshall Islands.

Without elaboration, here are some Pacific Islands that you should be familiar with under U.S. jurisdiction:

  • Midway Atoll
  • Johnston Island
  • Palmyra Atoll
  • Kingman Reef
  • *Howland Island
  • Baker Island
  • Jarvis Island

*Renewed searches are underway to try to find where Aviatrix Amelia Earhart went down in 1937.

You will possibly hear these remote and desolate places collectively referred to as the United States Minor Outlying Islands, which also include Navassa Island in the Caribbean.


I know, but I’m not going to give you a pop quiz on this. Nobody expects you to have all of this on the tip of your tongue or at your fingertips. But when you write articles about the Pacific, please try very hard to use the correct terminology.

You may think nobody will notice and perhaps nobody back east in the Tri-State area where you live will notice. Unless they’re originally from out here. But people in the Pacific will most definitely realize that you are not familiar with the subject that you’re discussing.

So you may just want to bookmark this as a handy reference. The Pacific Theater is becoming more and more crucial in the need for American re-engagement. Every schoolboy and schoolgirl in Beijing and Shanghai know far more about America’s interests in the Pacific than you or many of our leaders inside the DC Beltway do.


I am writing to try to correct that imbalance and I hope you will join me in this effort. You will be much more effective if you study the Pacific geography now rather than just wait until you hear what China did in someplace you never heard of before.

Yap island is not Manhattan but what happens there will inevitably and inexorably reach you eventually. Xi Jinping will give you a very rude awakening sometime soon.

I bet you never heard of Tora Bora, Afghanistan before 2001. But, what goes on halfway around the world doesn’t always stay there.

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