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Red alert: Alarms raised over stalled COFA



 By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

 

 The Department of Defense has “done more than ever alongside allies and partners to advance a shared vision for a free and open region,” the department said in a factsheet issued on Feb. 9 listing its investments in the region since Washington released the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy two years ago.


“Indo-Pacific nations are helping to define the very nature of the international order, and U.S. allies and partners around the world have a stake in its outcomes,” the strategy states. “Our approach, therefore, draws from and aligns with those of our closest friends.”


The China-centric strategy focuses on strengthening U.S. alliances to counter Beijing’s growing clout in the region. But the second anniversary of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy’s release was marked by utter exasperation over the U.S. Congress’ dilly-dallying on Pacific treaties that are crucial to securing America’s position in the island region.


Stakeholders and analysts find a great disconnect between Washington’s rhetoric and actions, which creates a fragmented path toward its oft-repeated mantra to secure a "free and open" Indo-Pacific.


The U.S. government’s pledge to renew its economic assistance to Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia is not an act of charity but a matter of national security. The three Pacific island nations, collectively known as freely associated states, form a strategic foothold in the region.


Under the Compacts of Free Association, the U.S. has exclusive defense rights in the three Pacific island nations. However, the COFA Amendment of 2023, which would renew the economic provisions under the agreements between the U.S. and the FAS, sits idly in the U.S. Congress, threatening to destabilize the fragile partnerships.


Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. and Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine reminded congressional leaders that Beijing is not wasting time. It has a foot in the door, dangling lures in front of politicians who are most likely to take them. In the FSM, the treaty keeps the Chinese military at bay, but given its diplomatic relations with Beijing, the U.S. partnership with this nation stands on shaky ground.


In the great power competition, those who actually deliver the goods get the prize.


The Pentagon is worried about the consequences of congressional inertia, specifically the likelihood of losing access to defense rights in the COFA states, where the U.S. military has control over airspace, land and water.

 

“They’ve been able to rely on that assumption of presence and access for all of their planning,” said Kathryn Paik, former director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific on the National Security Council, said in an interview with Defense News. “Every contingency you can imagine in the Pacific — Korea, Taiwan — everything depends on [those] assumptions of defense access.”

  

In a recent media briefing, Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, emphasized that the U.S. military could not out-compete with one hand tied behind its back for several months. “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,” she said. "No amount of money can buy back the time we lose when we are forced to operate under continuing resolutions.


The U.S. Congress is facing multifront pressure even in its own backyard. House members led by Rep. Ed Case and Rep. Steve Womack reminded Speaker Mike Johnson of the Solomon Islands and Nauru’s diplomatic shift from Taiwan to China. A failure to seal the agreements negotiated with Palau, the FSM and the Marshall Islands “would be the most self-destructive gift the United States could give to China,” they warned.

 

The White House has agreed to renew the expired provisions of the Compacts of Free Association, pledging $7.1 billion in 20-year economic assistance to three Pacific island states in exchange for U.S. defense rights in the sovereign nations. The compacts’ economic provisions for the FSM and the Marshall Islands expired on Sept. 30, 2023, and will run out on Sept. 30 this year for Palau.

 

Preoccupied with Gaza, Ukraine and border issues, the U.S. Congress overlooked this side of the world.

 

“Each day that we do not pass this legislation into law is an opportunity

missed, and an opening for our enemies to sow doubt about our viability as a partner and our strength as an ally,” reads the House members’ letter.


They noted that Washington's credibility is at stake and the pending agreements will serve as "litmus tests" for U.S. partnership. "They are watching to see if we will follow through on our commitments and should we fail, (China) will further exploit that vacuum with further intervention and disruption rather than open and lawful competition," they said in the letter.

 

“A key issue is the House Republicans' rule requiring that the cost of new multi-year mandatory spending must be ‘offset’ by budget cuts or revenue increases,” according to Cleo Paskal, a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained in a LinkedIn post. “House Republicans came up with this rule in 2011 and have used it in every House they have controlled since Democrats had the majority from 2019 through 2022. That's why it took over seven years to approve the smaller (about $250 million) 2010 compact agreement (when half the money had already been paid without agreement approval).

 

Another issue is the congressional leadership’s lack of full understanding of the real threats posed by China in the Pacific region. “I think DoD should have been working for the last few years, with maps in hand, on helping Congress members and staffers understand this,” Paskal said.


Grant Newsham, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, noted that American control of the Central Pacific depends on the COFA treaties. “U.S. defenses in the Asia Pacific center on a defense line running from Japan to the Philippines to Taiwan and on to Borneo. The so-called “first island chain,” he wrote in a blog posted on CSP website. “Try defending against China along the first island chain without a secure ‘rear area’ in the Central Pacific. And imagine it’s the Chinese in the rear.”

 

When national security is at stake, Newsham said, excuses are unacceptable.

 

“The White House can find the money if it wants to. It doesn’t. There was, in fact, an Asia tsar at the White House National Security Council, Kurt Campell, who should have made passage of the COFAs his mission. He was the ‘tsar’ after all.  Instead, he bailed out and has failed upwards ー just confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State. That’s par for the course in Washington,” Newsham wrote. “Congress could find the money, too, if it wanted.  It doesn’t, or it is distracted by ‘the border,’ Ukraine, Gaza, and any number of things.”



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