WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is nearing a deal with two Pacific island nations to extend ties seen as critical to balancing the U.S.-China rivalry for influence in a region where China is rapidly expanding its economic, diplomatic and military influence. .
This week, the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding with the Marshall Islands and Palau that administration officials hope will pave the way for the swift completion of broader agreements that will govern the islands’ relationship with Washington for the next two decades. These ties provide the US with unique military and other security rights on the islands in exchange for significant aid.
The administration believes expanding these so-called “free association compacts” agreements will be key to efforts to maintain American power and blunt Chinese assertiveness throughout the Indo-Pacific.
The memorandum signed this week sets out the amounts of money the federal government will provide to the Marshall Islands and Palau if their agreements are successfully renegotiated. Negotiations for a similar memorandum with the third compact country, Micronesia, are ongoing.
Existing 20-year agreements with the Marshall Islands and Micronesia expire this year; the current agreement with Palau expires in 2024, but administration officials have said they believe all three can be renewed and signed by mid- to late spring.
Officials would not discuss the specific amounts of money involved because the agreements are not yet legally binding and must still be reviewed and approved by Congress as part of the budget process.
Micronesian news portal Marianas Variety reported Thursday that the Marshall Islands will receive $700 million over four years under a memorandum they signed. However, this amount would only cover one-fifth of the 20-year compact extension and does not include the amount Palau would receive.
Joe Yun, Biden’s Special Presidential Adviser for Compact Negotiations, said the amounts would be much higher than what the US has provided in the past.
The island’s residents have long complained that previous agreements they signed did not adequately address their needs or the long-term environmental and health problems caused by US nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. Lawmakers already expressed concern in 2021 that the administration was not paying enough attention to the issue.
Yun, who signed the memorandum with representatives of the Marshall Islands and Palau on Tuesday and Wednesday in Los Angeles, said the Marshall Islands in particular would be compensated for such damage and given control over how the money was spent.
Yun said it would pay for the “health, welfare, and development of communities affected by the nuclear power plant,” and also noted that the U.S. has committed to building a new hospital and museum in the Marshalls to preserve the memory and legacy of their role, particularly in the Pacific theater during World War II.
This week’s signings clear the way for individual federal agencies — including the Postal Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service — to negotiate their own agreements with the Marshalls and Palau, which will then become part of the broader compact.
Along with federal money, these agencies provide their services to the islands. In return, the US receives unique rights and privileges based on military and national security in an area where China is increasingly flexing its muscles.
Yun said China did not specifically participate in the talks, but it was a major part of all parties’ discussions.
“The threat from China is not mentioned, but there is no doubt that China is a factor,” Yun said. Not only does China have a large and growing economic presence in the region, but the Marshall Islands and Palau recognize Taiwan diplomatically. “They are coming under Chinese pressure,” he said.
China has steadily poached allies from Taiwan in the Pacific, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in 2019. The US last year announced plans to reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands, which has signed a security agreement with China.
Since World War II, the US has treated the Marshall Islands, along with Micronesia and Palau, as territories. In the Marshall Islands, the US has developed military, intelligence and aviation facilities in a region where China is particularly active.
American money and jobs, in turn, benefited the islands’ economy. And many islanders took advantage of their ability to live and work in the US, moving by the thousands to Arkansas, Guam, Hawaii, Oregon and Oklahoma.
Many in the Marshall Islands believe that the $150 million US settlement agreed in the 1980s fell far short of addressing the nuclear legacy. However, the US position has remained static for more than 20 years, the last time the compact was renegotiated.
Various estimates put the actual cost of the damage at about $3 billion, including repairs to the massive nuclear waste facility known as Cactus Dome, which environmentalists say is leaking toxic waste into the ocean.
The US Department of Energy says the dome contains over 100,000 cubic yards (76,000 cubic meters) of radioactively contaminated soil and debris, but the structure is not in immediate danger of failure.