President Joe Biden has about a year and a half to renew key provisions of treaties that secure the U.S. military’s strategic control over the northwestern Pacific.
The international agreements, known as the Compacts of Free Association, give the U.S. the right to block other nations’ military activities over an area of the western Pacific comparable to the size of the 48 contiguous states.
That’s critical for U.S. national security interests as China extends its influence across the Pacific. The economic elements of the agreements with three separate countries are set to expire in 2023 and 2024.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration held several talks with the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. Due to the pandemic, in-person negotiations were cancelled and switched to Webex.
Last year, then-Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs Doug Domenech said that talks were on track to wrap up by the end of 2020 despite the pandemic.
That didn’t happen.
Now Hawaii U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele are urging President Joe Biden to appoint a White House special envoy or senior appointee to lead the renegotiation efforts, which involve coordinating across multiple agencies.
“As a member of Congress representing the Indo-Pacific, I’m deeply invested in the decisions our country makes in a century of both great opportunity and great peril in the Indo-Pacific,” Case said. “It’s critical that that negotiation continues apace and it is done as thoughtfully and carefully and expeditiously as possible.”
Gerald Zackios, the Washington, D.C. ambassador for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said appointing a senior official is particularly important to the Marshall Islands as well.
“We must have high-level representation from the U.S. like we have placed in the islands,” he said, referring to negotiators in the Marshall Islands.
The pandemic isn’t the only reason the renegotiations didn’t get completed last year, but it didn’t help, says Alex Gray, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
Gray served as the chief of staff of the National Security Council at the White House between 2019 and 2021. Before that, he was director of the Pacific Islands region at the National Security Council, the first such dedicated role.
“The in-person meetings you need to be successful in those negotiations were impossible for most of the year,” he said. Personal relationships are always an important part of diplomacy, he added, but that’s even more true in the Pacific.
Another challenge was coordinating federal agencies that had concerns and questions about their obligations under the compacts. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, worried about the cost of providing critical postal service to the Pacific islands.
That’s one reason Zackios from the Marshall Islands said appointing a high-level official is key to coordinate federal agencies.
By the end of 2020, Zackios said negotiators hadn’t yet received a U.S. proposal regarding federal programs and services and the Marshall Islands hadn’t yet responded to the U.S. position with its own official counter-proposal.
“We hadn’t received what we needed to receive to be fully engaged,” he said.
Last year, the U.S. took the position that the compacts should be renewed effectively as-is, without significant changes. It’s unclear what the Biden administration might do differently. Spokesmen for the Biden administration did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Zackios from the Republic of the Marshall Islands said the country’s negotiating team raised issues related to the U.S. nuclear legacy as well as Kwajelein, where the U.S. has a military base. The Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. dumped nuclear waste from Nevada in a concrete dome in Enewetak, adding to existing waste from U.S. nuclear testing in the islands, without informing the Marshall Islands.
Marshall Islanders are also concerned about the condition of the dome and reports that it has been leaking, Zackios said.
He said this month that Marshall Islands officials received a proposed federal programs and services agreement from the U.S. but official talks have yet to resume.
“Nothing has actually happened since the change of administration,” he said.
Zackios hopes that changes quickly.
“2023 is just in front of us,” he said. “We are hoping we are still able to conclude something before 2023 comes around.”
Patrick Tellei, a member of the compact negotiating team for the Republic of Palau, said the team was recently reconstituted by newly elected President Surangel Whipps, Jr.
“We’ve just held an organizational meeting and have not had a chance to engage our U.S. counterparts. I am sure in due time, we will be doing just that,” Tellei wrote in an email.
Case said he is confident the Biden administration understands the importance of the issue, but wants to ensure that Congress is kept apprised of the negotiations and isn’t surprised by a sudden request to approve it.
In particular, he wants more federal funding for Hawaii to offset the costs of visa-free migration allowed under the compacts, including the cost of public school for Pacific Islander migrant children as well as U.S.-born children of migrants.
Case added Micronesian migrants are “fully contributing members of our country.”
“Many have become naturalized and of course their children born in the U.S. are now citizens so there are very, very deep ties,” he said.
Gray, the former Pacific Islands lead at the National Security Council, said he doesn’t think the challenges that emerged last year would prevent getting the compacts renewed, given their importance.
“The strategic and the moral obligation to get this done is so significant,” he said.
The U.S. has taken for granted its control over Pacific islands since the fall of the Soviet Union, he said, but now it’s an area of real competition.
“We took for granted that there would not be another great power competitor who had interest and capability to be a Pacific power,” Gray said. “The Chinese have both.”
Gray added he believes there’s lots of congressional support for renewal and is confident the Biden administration understands the issue’s importance.
“We did lose a significant amount of time because of COVID-19,” he said. “With the political will that I think exists, we’ll be able to move much more expeditiously.”
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