The multi-part agreements still need approval from Congress and the RMI parliament.

Officials from the U.S. government and the Republic of the Marshall Islands on Monday renewed agreements to continue a formal partnership that dates back to the mid-1980s.

The agreements amend a joint compact and set up new fiscal procedures and a new trust fund for the RMI.

The signing ceremony for the Compact of Free Association took place at the East-West Center in Honolulu. Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations Joseph Yun signed the agreements for the U.S. while Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Jack Ading signed for the RMI. 

The ceremony, which included Hawaii Gov. Josh Green and other officials, was closed to the press and public. Hawaii is home to several thousand Marshallese who are allowed to live and work in the islands because of COFA.

A sign honoring the U.S. military in Majuro, the capital of the RMI. (Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2014)

The negotiations between the U.S. and the RMI began in 2019 but, according to Reuters, stalled several times over disagreements about future American funding for the Marshalls, compensation for the dozens of U.S. nuclear tests conducted in the region between 1946 and 1958, and the mitigation of the negative impacts of climate change.

Ading, the foreign minister, said at the ceremony that there will be “substantial increases” in funding from the U.S. to the RMI to address climate change, the environment, health issues, vocational education and nuclear legacy issues.

“We were not, however, able to work toward resolving our nation’s nuclear legacy after so much information had only become known to our government and people during the first 17 years of the compact,” Ading said in his speech at the East-West Center. “That nuclear legacy hardships and challenges suffered by the Marshallese people have continued, and our people have rightfully demanded that our government address these issues in our current negotiations.”

Ading’s speech was confirmed by the RMI consulate in Honolulu.

The State Department said the RMI President David Kabua, Chief Negotiator Phillip Muller and several other senior officials attended the signing in Honolulu, along with U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Carmen G. Cantor.

Another speech at the signing ceremony, from Muller, shed more light on why the talks stalled, and how they were resolved.

He said the U.S. asked the RMI to identify its priorities. President Kabua “made clear” that they included:

  • the needs of Marshallese who lost family members, suffered health-wise and lost use of land due to the U.S. nuclear testing program and radioactive waste disposal;
  • the needs of Marshallese who work at or live near what the U.S. Joint Chiefs have rated as “the world’s premier range for testing ICBMS and space operations”; and
  • the existential threat of rising seas to a nation with no place higher than 6 feet above sea level.

Muller said that the talks were revitalized “due to the understanding” of U.S. National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, by members of both political parties in the houses of Congress, and by the appointment of Yun as envoy.

Muller added that the “most difficult compromise” between the two nations concerned addressing needs from the U.S. nuclear testing and waste disposal, including waste from the Nevada test site.

“This is an issue that the U.S. inadequately addressed in negotiating the original Compact of Free Association and wrongfully and mistakenly refused to discuss in amending it in 2003,” said Muller.

Under the new agreement, the RMI’s COFA trust fund “was repurposed,” said Muller, to be used for the needs of people “who have suffered because of U.S. nuclear or other military activities.”

The trust fund, which now totals $700 million and includes contributions from Taiwan, will receive an additional $700 million.

Muller also said that basic financial assistance will increase from $28 million to $50 million, adjusted for inflation for 20 years.

The speech was also confirmed by the RMI consulate.

‘Prosperous Pacific’

In a press release posted on its website, the U.S. State Department said little about the agreements.

“The U.S.-RMI Compact continues to underpin our special relationship that is deep and enduring, and that furthers the U.S. commitment to a Pacific that is secure, free and open, and more prosperous,” the release posted Tuesday stated.

Approval by the U.S. Congress and the RMI parliament, or Nitijela, is necessary “before the agreements can be brought into force,” according to the State Department.

Micronesia is a region of the Pacific that’s west of Polynesia.

Reuters reported Tuesday that the renewal of the RMI treaty amounts to a $2.3 billion deal. It follows new deals reached earlier this year between the Biden administration and the other two COFA states (also known as the Freely Associated States): the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau.

Radio Free Asia reported that the three countries will receive a combined $7.1 billion, “a substantial increase from their previous agreements.”

The agreements come at a time that China is aggressively seeking to expand its presence in the Pacific Ocean and to form relationships with island nations.

But under COFA, it is Washington that is responsible for exclusive defense of the region, which totals some 2 million square miles, in exchange for economic assistance. There is also a U.S. military base and missile test site on Kwajalein, the largest atoll in the Marshalls.

Citizens of the RMI, FSM and Palau are allowed to travel freely to the U.S. and Guam, and many do in order to receive medical care, improve their education and obtain work.

The nations are home to around 200,000 people, but poor economic conditions have led to an ongoing outmigration that has resulted in health and education costs for Hawaii and Guam.

The Marshall Islands were invaded by U.S. military forces during World War II, and the Empire of Japan lost control of the region. The U.S. then administered what was known as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands after the war under direction of the United Nations.

The RMI has governed since 1979, and the first compact was secured in 1986.

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