In a letter Tuesday to President Joe Biden, Hawaii’s two congressional representatives asked the administration to prioritize negotiations with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau.
That includes the appointment of a special envoy or senior appointee to coordinate federal renewal of Compacts of Free Association — formal agreements between the U.S. and each nation — and to work with Congress on the “substance of these negotiations to ensure swift approval of the agreements.”
The agreements between the U.S. and the Micronesian countries are critical, say Democratic Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele, because of a long shared history “and critical presents and futures.”
The compacts, subsidiary agreements and enacting legislation define a “decades-old special and mutually beneficial relationship,” they write, and provide the U.S. with valuable economic and security benefits, including:
The right to mutual control over an expanse of the Pacific as large as the 48 continental States — from Hawaii to Guam, the Philippines, and Indonesia – including shipping lanes coveted by competitors;
basing rights, including facilities on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have termed “the world’s premiere range and test site for intercontinental ballistic missiles and space operations support” and the installation of new advance warning U.S. military radar systems in Palau; and
a say over the interactions of the COFA nations — also known as the Freely Associated States — with other governments and over FAS policies the U.S. “deems inconsistent with common defense requirements.”
Under the Trump administration, COFA renewal talks were reported to be on track to finish in 2020. But then came the new administration as well as the global pandemic.
“Although the previous administration hoped to complete the negotiations by the end of 2020, little progress was made,” Case and Kahele say in their letter, which was also signed by 13 other bipartisan members of Congress.
There is a sense of urgency to the task, as trust funds intended to replace annual financial grants from the U.S. to the COFA nations after fiscal year 2023 for the RMI and the FSM and 2024 for Palau are deemed insufficient.
As well, the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command warned Congress in 2019 of “the pernicious use of Beijing’s economic leverage” in the region.
Meanwhile, it’s estimated that over 94,000 COFA citizens live in the United States and its territories as part of the compacts, “contributing to our economies and the diversity of our communities.”
The negotiations between the U.S. and the COFA nations must include supporting the economic and social needs of the citizens of the region, the congressmen said.
The letter to Biden is copied to the departments of Defense, Interior and State as well as to the national security advisor.
In a related development, in December Congress restored Medicaid access for COFA citizens in the U.S. nearly 25 years after taking it away.
And in May Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii introduced a bill in Congress that would allow COFA citizens in the U.S. to receive food stamps and other federal benefits that had been denied the migrant communities for decades.