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US Congress under pressure to move languishing COFA legislation

Failing Pacific nations 'would be the most self-destructive gift the US could give to China,' House members tell Speaker Johnson


 

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

 

The Solomon Islands and Nauru are cautionary tales of China’s gain resulting from Washington’s neglect, according to U.S. House members who are pressing for urgent action on U.S. deals struck with three Pacific island nations known as freely associated states.


In a letter to Speaker Mike Johnson, House members led by Rep. Ed Case and Rep. Steve Womack warned that a failure to seal the agreements negotiated with Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands “would be the most self-destructive gift the United States could give to China.”


Ed Case

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.


In a unanimous vote on Nov. 8, 2023, the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources recommended the passage of the Compact of Free Association Amendments Act of 2023, which would seal the terms that have been finalized between the U.S. and FAS negotiators last year.


However, the renewal is hanging fire due to stalled action on the bipartisan COFA legislation, reported as H.J. Res. 96.


Steve Womack

House members urged Johnson to include H.J. Res. 96 in the next available legislative vehicle.

 

“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,” the letter reads.


"The delay in the approval of the COFA stands in contrast to (China’s) success in establishing diplomatic relations with Solomon Islands in 

2019 and more recently the Republic of Nauru,” the House members warned.


The U.S. has been trying to amplify its "charm offensive" in the Pacific island region, promising increased engagements and economic assistance to island states in a bid to counter China's growing clout.


House members 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.

 

The compacts include non-expiring provisions granting the U.S. vital defense rights in the strategic nations, where the U.S. military has control over airspace, land and water.

 

Palau

“Without renewing the agreements, we would concede the territory to the (Chinese Communist Party), impacting our allies in the region and threatening our own homeland,” Womack said in a statement posted on X.


“The Compacts of Free Association got the bipartisan stamp of approval from the House Natural Resources Committee in November for a reason— these agreements are vital to our national security,” Womack said. "The next step is House passage, and there’s no time to waste."

 

In a separate statement, Case said the pending COFA measure was “fully vetted and ready for final approval."


“The delay in providing congressional approval is being used to sow doubt as to whether we can be trusted to stand by our commitments to our Pacific partners,” Case said.


Both Palau and the Marshall Islands are currently allied with Taiwan, while the FSM has diplomatic ties with China.


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In a Feb. 9 redacted letter to a U.S. senator, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said China has been attempting to lure local leaders and make inroads into his country while the COFA bill languishes in the U.S. Congress.


“Every day it is not approved plays into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party and the leaders here (some of whom have done business with the PRC) who want to accept its seemingly attractive economic offers at the cost of shifting alliances, beginning with sacrificing Taiwan,” he wrote.


He said China has offered to “fill every hotel room” in Palau and proposed “$20 million a year for two acres for a call center.”


In a separate redacted letter dated Feb. 13, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine said, “There have been carrot-and-stick efforts from (China) to shift our alliances including discontinuing support for Taiwan,” Heine said.


Both letters were first posted on X by Cleo Paskal, a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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