A federal official said this month that the United States is close to naming negotiators to renew and extend treaties with three Pacific Islands nations important to American goals in the region.

Funding agreements in the treaties, known as the Compacts of Free Association, are set to expire in 2023 for the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

A separate COFA agreement with the Republic of Palau will expire in 2024.

But Doug Domenech, assistant secretary for insular and international affairs with the U.S. Department of the Interior, said he is optimistic that a 20-year COFA extension could be secured this year.

“It’s a notional goal,” he said earlier this month. “And the timing is different for Palau. But at least for the RMI and FSM, we would very much like to try to get that done this year if at all possible.”

Doug Domenech, at left, from the U.S. Interior Department, visited a dispensary in the Chuuk Lagoon, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, in 2019. He says a renewed COFA treaty is possible in 2020. U.S. DOI/2019

He added, “I say that optimistically, because so much time was invested in developing the last compact, and we don’t hear a lot of complaints from the countries. … Our assumption is that there is an opportunity to continue with those same compacts — I’m sure they’ll change a little bit on the edges — but the fundamental document is pretty sound. And that’s the only reason why we think we can do it this year.”

At stake is about $220 million in U.S. aid delivered to the region. Domenech said total aid to the COFA nations — also known as the freely associated states — since COFA was established in the mid-1980s amounts to $7.7 billion. The funds have helped primarily with infrastructure, education, and medical and environmental support.

COVID-19 Upends Direct Meetings

Not surprisingly, the coronavirus has had an affect on COFA talks. Domenech said reduced travel to the region has been a concern.

“It has made it difficult for face-to-face types of engagement,” he said.

Chuuk, Yap and Pohnpei in the FSM earlier this month implemented passenger restrictions. Travel restrictions are also in place in the Marshalls.

Last weekend, Radio New Zealand reported that United Airlines — the only international airline to service the Marshall Islands — suspended flights for at least three weeks “after an incident associated with their COVID-19 coronavirus restrictions.”

When a flight from Guam to Honolulu was forced to terminate in Majuro because of mechanical problems, “government authorities refused United’s request to accommodate the 124 passengers and crew members inside the departure lounge of the terminal because the government placed a ban on incoming air arrivals since March 8 to prevent spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus,” Radio New Zealand reported.

The so-called “island-hopper” connects Hawaii to Guam, stopping at several COFA islands in between. On Thursday, United cut flights to Palau after that nation established COVID-19 restrictions.

“The suspension of service to the Marshall Islands will also impact Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia, leaving that island without air service until 13 April,” Radio New Zealand reported.

Staff at Interior said via email this week that “meetings and discussions continue (virtually)” despite COVID-19.

In a press release last week, Domenech praised the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “for their ongoing technical assistance and financial support” to the freely associated states and U.S. territories during the pandemic. The federal aid amounts to an additional $2.7 million for the various islands — including $367,000 for the RMI, $420,000 for the FSM and $336,000 for Palau.

On Thursday Domenech announced $858,924 in emergency grant funding to the FAS and U.S. Pacific territories to conduct on-island testing during the coronavirus pandemic.

And on Friday, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump. Interior officials said that the bill includes significant additional monies for the FAS and territories.

Inroads By China

The Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs carries out the secretary’s responsibilities for the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The office also administers and oversees federal assistance to the RMI, the FSM and Palau under the COFA pacts.

When Civil Beat last spoke with Domenech in early December, the Trump administration was “ramping up its focus on the region” given China’s overtures to gain influence in Micronesia.

It was important enough to send Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit the region last year, and for the leaders of the three nations to meet with the president at the White House — a first.

The departments of the Interior and Defense also conducted “listening tours” to get feedback on what’s important to island residents and their representatives.

What they heard, said Domenech — who was briefed on the tours — was “mostly a desire in maintaining the compacts … that leads me to think that the basic constructs of the compacts are in good shape. There was not a list of, ‘Here are 10 things we hate about the compact.’”

Micronesia is a region of the Pacific west of Polynesia. 

Domenech also said the U.S. was “heartened” that Chuuk, one of the four states in the FSM, again decided to postpone a vote on secession — this time until 2022.

Domenech described secession as “an internal matter” but made clear that, from the point of view of the United States, there would be huge implications for Chuuk if it left the FSM, including for Chuukese living in Guam, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland.

While precise numbers are vague, Chuukese and Marshallese make up the largest populations of Micronesians in Hawaii and in states such as Arkansas.

While many Micronesians integrate into the fabric of American society and pay taxes, health care, human services and public education for COFA residents have rung up annual financial bills that for Hawaii alone total around $200 million. Guam spent more than $147 million in 2017 to aid its COFA population.

Yet only around $30 million in what’s known as compact-impact aid goes to Guam, Hawaii and to American Samoa and the CNMI, which have much smaller COFA migrant populations.

Doug Domenech at the War in the Pacific National Historical Park on Guam in 2019. U.S. interests in Micronesia largely began during World War II. U.S. DOI/2019

In November, U.S. Rep. Ed Case informed the secretaries of State, Defense and Interior that unless compact-impact is increased, Congress may not sign off on a renewed COFA.

Domenech said he and his federal partners are “very well aware” of the congressman’s concerns. Whether Congress will pony up the additional money, however, is far from certain.

“The federal government is willing to allocate the funds the way we’ve been doing it, but money is not endless,” he said. To increase the compact-impact money to the amount requested by Case and others would more than double the amount the U.S. is already appropriating.

“It’s a significant amount of money that I am not 100 percent sure where that would come from,” he said.

‘At A Crossroads’

Domenech acknowledged an urgency to the COFA negotiations, given the uncertainty of the 2020 presidential election.

“Any new administration coming in is — I feel that they are going to lose a year or two just getting up to speed and understanding the dynamics of the negotiations with those three countries,” he said. “I’d sure like to see if we can at least cross the line in 2020 if at all possible.”

Taking the longer view, Domenech said that the Pacific is “at a crossroads — again. Over a long history of time these islands have been occupied by different sorts of imperialist nations, and they’ve had a big impact on the region.”

Interior’s relationship goes back some 70 years.

“The U.S. is in a relationship with three countries — we see them as bilateral relationships,” he said. “It’s the U.S. and each of them separately. And it’s really not a geopolitical construct. We see it as a people-to-people type of relationship that we’ve grown over the years to do a lot of things together.”

He continued: “It really is about common values. The greatest export America has is freedom and democracy. And that’s what we support in these three countries and why it’s so important for us to be involved there.”

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