A lead negotiator for the U.S. says that efforts to renegotiate treaties with three Pacific nations are slightly delayed due to the pandemic but still on track to finish this year.

Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Doug Domenech said the talks with the Republic of Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are all progressing but moving at different paces. Negotiations with Palau have been slightly delayed due to its presidential elections.

At issue are the expiring financial and economic provisions of the treaties: access to U.S. programs like the U.S. Postal Service and Federal Aviation Administration; funding known as sector grants for education and other necessities; and money for each country’s trust funds. Domenech said the goal is to wrap up the negotiations in time for Congress to include any funding in the fiscal year 2023 budget.

President Donald Trump met with, from left, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo and Palau President Tommy Remengesau at the White House in May 2019. US Embassy Kolonia/White House

The pandemic derailed plans to hold in-person meetings in Honolulu. Instead, since midsummer U.S. negotiators have been meeting virtually via Webex about every other week with one of the three nation’s negotiating teams, Domenech said. Technical team meetings take place in between the formal meetings. There have only been two formal meetings with FSM negotiators thus far.

Domenech said there are about 10 people from the U.S. State and Interior departments involved in the talks, but ensuring federal programs can continue involves “a little bit of negotiating in the federal family as well,” he said.

“We’re hoping that none of them end but we can’t control that. Each federal program, they control their own programs and funding,” Domenech said. “We are hoping we can offer a strong package.”

Epel Ilon, the executive director of the Federated States of Micronesia’s Joint Committee on Compact Review and Planning, said the country’s negotiators are also aiming to meet the end-of-year deadline. He described the conversations as friendly.

“We’re actually friends working together trying to come up with something that will be a benefit to our people,” he said. “We’re negotiating in good faith.”

Douglas Domenech U.S. Department of the Interior

Representatives from the Republic of Palau and Republic of the Marshall Islands declined to comment for this story.

The negotiations are happening against a backdrop of tensions between the U.S. and China. President Donald Trump’s administration has recently amped up attention on Pacific nations following increasing overtures from China. China hasn’t come up explicitly in the negotiations, Domenech said.

“We live in a world where we’re not an island so to speak. We have to deal with the reality of today,” Ilon said. “We’re friends with both the U.S. and China.”

So far, nothing has yet been explicitly agreed upon. Ilon noted the U.S. has confirmed that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is willing to continue backing the FSM’s only bank but “nothing has yet been put in black and white and signed on the lines to say we’ve agreed.”

China’s efforts to extend its influence in the Pacific have prompted Palau President Tommy Remengesau to invite the U.S. repeatedly to establish a base in the country. Domenech said that’s not part of the compact renegotiations — the Department of Defense has separate periodic meetings with the Pacific nations — but that he supports the idea.

“Only good things would happen if we had bases,” Domenech said. “We do have a base in the Marshall Islands, so they feel a stronger affinity with the U.S.,” he said, comparing the Marshall Islands with the Federated States of Micronesia.

Power Imbalance

What’s left out of the Compact renegotiations is also significant. Lack of access to Medicaid is a major issue for citizens of freely associated states living in the U.S., especially as Pacific Islanders suffer high rates of COVID-19, but Domenech says restoring Medicaid is not on the table because it’s not an expiring provision of the international agreement.

The limited nature of the negotiations is a problem according to Erin Thomas, policy and research coordinator at ICAAD, an international human rights organization. The group just released a report on Compact negotiations exploring the power imbalance between the U.S. and the three Pacific nations.

“The U.S. policy has been manufactured underdevelopment. Their goal has never been to make the freely associated states self-sufficient — the dependency on the U.S. has allowed the U.S. to have their military access and strategic positioning in the region,” Thomas said. “I think it’s important to recognize that in these negotiations themselves, although the talk is that it’s sovereign states coming together, the U.S. set the terms.”

Thomas points to the problem of nuclear waste in the Marshall Islands. In addition to radiation leftover from U.S. nuclear tests, a Los Angeles Times investigation found the U.S. dumped nuclear waste from Nevada in the Marshall Islands without telling them. And now that the concrete nuclear dome is leaking, the U.S. says it’s not their responsibility to clean it up.

“The U.S. has repeatedly and consistently acted in bad faith to not even allow any dispute resolution,” Thomas said. “How can you have a relationship where one party can get away with just about anything and still call it an equal balance?”

Thomas said when it comes to issues like climate change, it may be possible for negotiators to discuss it in the context of U.S. obligations to a Pacific nation’s security.

“We really hope people help push the envelope in that way, otherwise the U.S. will continue to bulldoze while calling them equal partnerships,” Thomas said.

Domenech from the Interior Department said negotiators have yet to discuss concerns about nuclear waste but he expects that it will come up before the year’s end. He said the power imbalance is not unique to the Compact renegotiations.

“I would say no country is as powerful as us,” he said. He noted the compact helps Palau, the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia secure certain things that are important to them.

“Obviously the U.S. has been a strong supporter of these countries for 40 to 50 years after we worked to free them from oppression in World World II and then worked through the whole Trust Territory process to secure their independence as sovereign nations,” he said.

Ilon from the Federated States of Micronesia said, “We are a sovereign country and that’s our approach with every country.” 

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