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Pentagon weighs in on mounting calls for congressional action on COFA bill


Sabrina Singh

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

 

The Pentagon is urging the U.S. Congress to take immediate action on the proposed extension of the funding programs for freely associated states amid rising concerns that the U.S. military might forfeit its access to a strategic foothold in the Pacific region.

 

“I want to take a moment to emphasize the critical national security importance of Congress passing our budget and the impacts for the Compacts of Free Association,” said Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary.  


“These are important agreements with our longstanding partners in the Pacific islands region, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” Singh said at a live-streamed press briefing.


Under the compacts, the U.S. military enjoys exclusive defense rights in the COFA nations, situated in a region “that's actually larger than the continental United States,” Singh said.  


The Pentagon issued the call following a letter sent last week to Speaker Mike Johnson by House members, warning that inaction on the COFA Amendment Act “would be the most self-destructive gift the United States could give to China.”  


The economic provisions under COFA and the subsequent stopgap funding for the FSM and the Marshall Islands under the continuing resolution have lapsed, creating economic uncertainties for the Pacific nations that rely heavily on U.S. assistance.


Palau is still operating under its current COFA economic package that expires on Sept. 30 but the lack of an approved federal budget foreshadowing a government shutdown jeopardizes the aid flow into the country.


The COFA legislation, which has been endorsed for approval by the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, would authorize $7.1 billion in economic assistance to Palau, the FSM and the Marshall Islands for 20 years.


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Our State Department colleagues have successfully negotiated a 20-year extension, and now we just need Congress to fund and enact it,” Singh said.

Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. and Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine pressed for immediate action on the COFA agreements, reminding the U.S. that China is waiting in the wings.  

U.S. defense officials are concerned that the Pacific island nations could potentially cede the exclusive defense rights to Beijing should Congress continue to hold up the COFA funding.


“We’re already late in getting this done,” Jedidiah Royal, the Pentagon’s deputy for Indo-Pacific policy, told Defense News.

 

The Department of Defense is still operating under a third extension of a continuing resolution.


"No amount of money can buy back the time we lose when we are forced to operate under continuing resolutions," Singh said.


"We must break this pattern of inaction," Singh said. "We can't out-compete the (People's Republic of China) with one hand tied behind our back three, four, five or even six months of every fiscal year. The best way that Congress can support the department is to pass appropriations bills into law as soon as possible. We need predictable, adequate, sustained and timely funding."



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