By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Slow-moving COFA talks putting regional partners’ loyalty to test
While military planners set their eyes on the Pacific islands region as the new theater for security operations, Washington appears to have disjointed efforts to please its regional partners.
The Department of Defense has begun informal talks with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia to build a permanent presence that will augment its military base in the Marshall Islands. But what’s in it for them?
The Compacts of Free Association represent the venue where Palau, Marshall Islands and the FSM hold their bargaining chips. Hence the U.S. lawmakers’ bid to wield pressure on the Biden administration to lend a greater focus on negotiations over the compacts and to settle all outstanding issues in the U.S nuclear test legacy with the Marshall Islands. The funding provisions of the compacts with the FSM and Marshall Islands are expiring in 2023, and 2024 for Palau.
But congressional members are anxious over the White House’s lackadaisical approach to the negotiation process.
In an article published on Nov. 15, Tia Belau reported that the compact negotiations were not moving forward. “Key programs to Palau such as the post office, FEMA, education and health have not made any progress,” Tia Belau quoted Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. as saying. “They can only speak about the State Department programs which are quite limited.”
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On Sept. 25, FSM President David Panuelo gave a brief update on the status of the negotiations. “The message that was given back to me is clear that we are going to extend the economic provisions of the compact; it’s just the amount and the level of funding and other details that are being negotiated,” Panuelo said during his meeting with Kosrae officials.
Without giving details, the president said FSM was preparing a response to the offers made by the U.S. negotiating team.
For the Marshall Islands, the negotiation is foreshadowing a stalemate due to Washington’s reluctance to engage the Marshallese on claims for environmental and health damage caused by a series of nuclear tests carried out between 1940 and 1950, including a thermonuclear blast on Bikini Atoll.
Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Casten Nemra told a U.S congressional hearing last month that no formal negotiations have been held this year and no schedule has been set.
“It is distressing that these negotiations do not appear to be a priority — there have been no formal meetings since this administration began — even as our international focus continues shifting to the Indo-Pacific,” 10 congressional members wrote in a Nov. 5 letter to Jack Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor.
They warned that the White House’s seeming indifference is likely to further embolden China to step into the breach and gain more momentum for geopolitical clout in the region.
“The current approach to (compact) talks has only put the U.S in a weaker position, and while we know the FAS 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 congressional letter read.
It was signed by eight Democrats and two Republicans. Democrats Dina Titus (Nevada), Ed Case (Hawaii), Michael FQ San Nicolas (Guam), Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Northern Marianas), Katie Porter (California), Kaiali’i Kahele (Hawaii), Kathy Manning (North Carolina), and Ted Lieu (California); and Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick (Pennsylvania) and Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (American Samoa).
In a statement last month, Amata slammed the State Department for not following proper diplomatic protocols in negotiating the treaty. She questioned the department’s move to delegate the negotiation to "desk officers" and "contract employees."
“The freely associated states are important – militarily, strategically and economically – in the Pacific region, so it is important that the Biden administration appoint negotiators of commensurate rank and credentials to complete these diplomatic matters with our valued friends and allies in the region,” said Amata.
In their letter to Sullivan, the U.S. lawmakers said both parties in Congress agree on “the need for a new approach.”
“In view of these issues, we again reiterate the need for a presidentially appointed lead (compact) negotiator on the (National Security Council),” the lawmakers said. “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.”
On Nov. 13, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs announced that Deputy Assistant Secretary Keone Nakoa concluded numerous meetings in Hawai’i with federal, state, and non-governmental organization representatives where they discussed a host of issues “including negotiations on the Compact of Free Association, the well-being of compact communities living across the United States, including Hawaiʻi, the effects of climate change across the Pacific, U.S. security interests in the Pacific, and marine and natural resource protection in the insular areas.”
“My meetings in Honolulu last week were informative and helpful as we work to advance discussions related to the Compacts of Free Association and other matters central to the mission of the Office of Insular Affairs and the Department of the Interior,” Nakoa said.
The announcement, however, did not include specifics of the meetings.