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Compact agreements get lost in congressional labyrinth

Updated: Mar 4



 

By Giff Johnson

 

Majuro — Last year, with 20-year funding agreements expiring for the three north Pacific freely associated states, the FAS seemed to be high on everyone’s agenda in Washington. Now, with 20-year extensions signed, the U.S. government is doing what it’s long done regarding the Micronesia area: backburnered it.


Since the Marshall Islands signed its funding package to extend the Compact of Free Association last October, the last of the three to do so, the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress have been unable to pass the agreements, leaving the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau in legislative limbo.


The problem is not that they (Compacts of Free Association) are considered unimportant or that there are disqualifying issues with the agreements; they have successfully passed out of the dozen relevant committees in both the Senate and the House,” said Compact commentator Cleo Paskal in The Diplomat the second week of February. “It’s that the COFA renewals have reached Congress during one of its most dysfunctional periods in recent memory.”


Despite the apparent Democrat and Republican agreement about the importance of the islands to U.S. defense interests at a time of heightened tension in the region between the U.S. and China, this has not translated into momentum to get the compacts through the congressional labyrinth.


The three FAS presidents have lobbied members of Congress, themselves raising the specter of increasing China inroads in the absence of the U.S. adopting compact legislation soon. But in the last week of February, over four months after the Marshall Islands and U.S. State Department officials signed the last agreement, the compact was still roadblocked in Congress, the victim variously of other controversial legislation with which it was once included or a lack of willingness of the U.S. administration to find “off-set” funds to reconcile with the new Compact funding.


“Currently, legislatively, the COFA renewals are not even in a position to be voted on,” said Paskal in The Diplomat. “They are nowhere.”

 

Coincidentally, March 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the infamous Bravo test at Bikini, the U.S. military’s largest hydrogen bomb test that spewed radioactive fallout across the Marshall Islands, spawning an ongoing nuclear legacy that has yet to be fully addressed by the US government. The lack of approval of the compacts only accentuates the deficient American response to its legacy of 67 nuclear weapons tests in the country.


Micronesia-area presidents have been expressing concern about delays in the U.S. Congress for approval of the three compacts that are worth $7.1 billion to the three North Pacific nations.


The three presidents — Surangel Whipps, Jr. of Palau, Wesley Simina of the FSM and Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands — sent a letter dated Feb. 6 to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, and the Appropriations Committee chair Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, and vice chair Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, urging them to get the agreements passed.


The U.S. Congress’ lack of passage of the COFA legislation has caused “uncertainty” in the islands — and opens the door to “undesirable opportunities for economic exploitation by competitive political actors active in the Pacific,” the three presidents said. The Feb. 6 letter doesn’t mention China by name but this is what the presidents were referencing.


There is no congressional opposition to the compacts. In fact, the three presidents in their February 6 letter pointed out: “The Compact of Free Association Amendments Act of 2023 has been cleared on a bipartisan basis by all US Congressional committees of jurisdiction and was proposed to be added to the emergency supplemental appropriations legislation being discussed in the Senate.”


They pointed out the importance of the three FAS to U.S. defense and security and noted that the compacts allow the U.S. “to base missiles and its earliest warning radars trained on Asia in Palau and a facility that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff says is the world’s premier range for ICBM testing and military space operations in the Marshall Islands. They also make it possible for the U.S. to conduct military exercises in the Federated States of Micronesia.”  


The three Micronesian leaders underlined “the importance to all of our nations of final approval by the U.S. Congress.”

 

Heine has continued a lobbying campaign by letter. In a letter sent to a U.S. senator on Feb. 13 that was posted on X by Paskal, Heine requested that the senator “do all possible to have the Senate pass the amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill…to enable the defense relationship between our nations, and the similar U.S. associations with Micronesia and Palau, endure for at least 20 more years.”


 In the copy of the letter reproduced on X (formerly Twitter), the name of the senator was blacked out.


She said that China has been active in “carrot and stick” efforts to get these U.S.-affiliated nations “to shift our alliances, including discontinuing support of Taiwan.” This included an effort to develop one atoll in the Marshall Islands that she opposed during her first administration — during the 2016-2020 period — that “generated an effort to topple my government in our parliament. Later, people from the PRC were convicted by a US court of bribing proposal supporters in our parliament who voted against me,” she said.


While Marshallese have grown up with the United States over decades, identifying with and admiring American values, “further delay (in the passage of the Compacts) threatens to undermine confidence in the U.S. and to encourage some to agree to PRC enticements,” Heine said.


But for the meantime, it appears that the attention of the U.S. Congress is more focused on hot-burner conflicts globally as well as the looming U.S. presidential election than it is on cementing the 20-year deal with its North Pacific allies.

 




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