President Joe Biden’s administration is under fire for its slow progress toward renegotiating key international agreements with three Pacific nations amid growing concern about China’s competing influence in the region.

Earlier this month, top Interior Department and State Department officials visited Hawaii and participated in informal talks about renegotiating the Pacific treaties, the first in-person meeting since Biden was elected.

That same week, 10 members of Congress, including Hawaii Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele, sent a letter to the White House urging the Biden administration to appoint a lead negotiator.

“This individual should ensure that unfulfilled Compact law commitments are honored, and that the U.S. is not cutting aid to our strategic partners with maritime security in the Pacific hanging in the balance,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Nov. 5 letter also called for the United States to adequately compensate victims of U.S. nuclear testing in the region.

Congressman Ed Case and Attorney General Clare Connors at the Post office press conference located on Merchant Street.
Congressman Ed Case says that the Biden administration needs to move faster on renegotiating Pacific treaties. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Compacts of Free Association refer to three international agreements that the U.S. has with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The United States expelled Japan from the countries during World War II and later agreed to the treaties during the Cold War in an effort to maintain a strong Pacific presence. The agreements went into effect 35 years ago under President Ronald Reagan, at the same time as the creation of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The treaties give the U.S. strategic denial rights over the land, airspace and waters surrounding the three nations, which national security experts say is crucial given tensions with China.

The financial provisions of the compacts, which involve U.S. payments and federal programs like postal services that help support the economies of the three nations, are set to expire for the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands in 2023 and for the Republic of Palau in 2024.

The compacts include a slew of other provisions, including visa-free migration for citizens of COFA nations to the U.S., which along with the strategic denial rights aren’t set to expire.

“I’ve continued to believe that they’re not moving fast enough or targeted enough,” Case said of the negotiations on Friday, adding that he wants the talks to wrap up by next summer.

“2022 is right around the corner,” Kahele said Sunday. “We don’t have time. Next year is an election year.”

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele says it shouldn’t take until 2023 to finish compact renegotiations with the three Pacific nations. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2020

The strategic importance of the nations has grown as China has sought to expand its influence in the Pacific. The U.S. military also is beefing up its presence across the nearby Mariana Islands chain, establishing a new Marine Corps base on Guam and a new air field in the Northern Mariana Islands.

“The U.S. just doesn’t have that much territorial sovereign land in the Pacific,” Kahele said. “The largest piece of land we have (in the western Pacific) is Guam. That’s why these Pacific island nations are really, really important.” 

Alex Gray, a senior fellow in national security at the American Foreign Policy Council, said negotiations about the agreements have stalled in the past, but the stakes are higher now and further delay would hand China a propaganda victory.

“You’ve got to be seen as proactively engaging now to help solve the problem otherwise it will geopolitically be turned against us,” he said.

Combined with Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, the area surrounding the three COFA nations is about the size of the entire 48 contiguous states and includes the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands.

‘Not Wasted Time’

Civil Beat reached out to representatives from Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands for this story but only Leo Falcam Jr., the chief negotiator for Micronesia, was available for an interview last week.

Falcam said that while there’s been a “noticeable pause in activity” regarding the compact renegotiations, there have actually been more informal technical and staff-to-staff discussions this year than previous years.

Members of Congress meet with Palau President Surangel Whipps at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 28. Courtesy: Rep. Kai Kahele

“We are happy that we’ve been able to continue some level of engagement during the transition period,” he said. “It has not been wasted time.”

He said that while the country has a diplomatic relationship with China, “we have not made it a secret to anyone that our primary partner of significance is the United States.”

He said it’s in both countries’ interests to hasten the pace of negotiations.

“I’m confident and very optimistic that these proceedings will begin to move in a more timely way in the very near future,” he said. “The most important focus and goal is the timely completion of a successfully negotiated bilateral treaty that serves the interests of both of our nations.”

One major issue that has yet to be decided is to what extent the renegotiated agreements will address the U.S. nuclear legacy in the region.

The U.S. conducted dozens of nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands during the Cold War, with ongoing negative health and environmental effects. A Los Angeles Times investigation revealed the U.S. dumped nuclear waste from Nevada in the Marshall Islands without informing the community. Other islanders in the region have expressed concern about the downwind effects of the nuclear testing as well.

The delay in negotiations “sends the wrong message to those countries and those nations that for years and years have been underfunded, have been neglected, they suffered horrific nuclear testing,” Kahele said, adding that he also thinks Biden needs to appoint an assistant secretary for insular affairs at the Department of the Interior. “There are many injustices that need to be resolved.” 

In their Nov. 5 letter, Kahele and other members of Congress said that the Department of Energy gave inaccurate testimony about nuclear waste in the Marshall Islands at a recent congressional hearing and noted the State Department didn’t attend the hearing.

A spokesperson for the State Department said that the agency decided participating in the hearing would be inappropriate at that time and instead proposed holding a briefing for Congress members and joining a future hearing.

The lawmakers wrote that an appointed lead negotiator “should have the mandate to see that legacy issues related to U.S. nuclear testing in the region are appropriately resolved, including proper environmental protections, clean up, health benefits, and monetary compensation for victims and their descendants.”

“The current approach to COFA talks has only put the U.S. in a weaker position, and while we know the (freely associated states) would prefer to continue their special relationship with the United States, China is all too ready to step in and provide the desperately needed infrastructure and climate resiliency investment that is sought by these long-time partners,” the Congress members concluded.

Propaganda Concerns

Gray said that inadequately addressing the U.S. nuclear legacy in the region would also fuel China’s propaganda.

“We have an obligation to come up with a solution that is consistent with that obligation and that legacy,” Gray said. “It shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

Gray said the appointment of a lead negotiator “would be a great signal to the islands and to the entire region about how invested President Biden is in this topic.”

For now, the talks are led by the State Department and the Interior Department. Ambassador Karen Stewart from the State Department and Keone Nakoa, deputy assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior, both visited Hawaii this month and met with Falcam.

Nakoa’s office said the agency isn’t conducting interviews about COFA renegotiations at this time. A spokesperson from the State Department said that the talks are the highest priority but that the pandemic and an administration change in Palau have contributed to delays.

According to a press release from the Interior Department issued Friday, Nakoa’s visit to Hawaii included not only discussions of the negotiations but also “the well-being of Compact communities living across the United States, including Hawaii, the effects of climate change across the Pacific, U.S. security interests in the Pacific, and marine and natural resource protection in the insular area.”

“I was very encouraged by the opportunity to engage with many of our partners in Hawaii toward a healthy, resilient, open, and free Pacific,” Nakoa said in the statement.

Case welcomed Nakoa’s visit but said the Biden administration needs to do more to prioritize the talks.

Case said he wishes that Biden administration officials would keep Congress members apprised of the ongoing talks. He also wants to ensure that Hawaii gets more federal funding to support citizens of COFA nations living in the islands.

It’s not the first time legislators have complained about the slow pace of negotiations. Case and fellow lawmakers sent a similar letter to the Biden administration in June calling for a White House envoy to be appointed. That didn’t happen.

Naz Durakoglu, acting assistant secretary at the Bureau of Legislative Affairs at the Department of State, responded in July and said the negotiators are working to finish talks in a timely fashion.

U.S. negotiators plan to extend all three nations’ access to federal programs related to weather services, telecommunications and aviation as well as economic development assistance, he said, adding that federal deposit insurance may be extended in the Federated States of Micronesia and possibly Palau and the Marshall Islands as well.

Gray said that part of the challenge with these negotiations is that the treaties involve numerous federal agencies, although the Defense Department is the primary beneficiary of the compacts.

A top official in the Trump administration said a year ago he expected negotiations would wrap up by the end of 2020, but that didn’t happen.

My concern three years ago was that it needed to be done by early 2020,” Gray said. “I feel like we are at least a year and a half, if not more, behind.”

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