On the eve of the US Pacific Summit in Washington, a key ally in the region canceled a scheduled negotiation session for an agreement Washington sees as a key safeguard against China in the region.
Negotiators from the Marshall Islands and the United States were set for the third round of talks this weekend to renew some expiring provisions of a free association pact when leaders in Majuro called it off and Washington’s lack of response to the country’s US nuclear weapons to Expressed testing legacy meant there was no need to meet.
Marshall Islands leaders have repeatedly stated that the ongoing health, environmental and economic problems from 67 US nuclear tests from 1946-1958 must be satisfactorily addressed before agreeing on a new economic package with the US.
Washington sees the compact treaties with the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, which span an ocean area larger than the continental US, as key to countering China’s expansion in the region.
“The unique security relationships established through the Compacts of Free Association have increased U.S. power projection in the Indo-Pacific region, structured U.S. defense planning and forces, and contributed to essential defense capabilities,” says a new study, published September 20 in Washington, DC by the United States Institute of Peace, “China’s Influence on the Freely Associated States of the Northern Pacific”.
China’s naval expansion increases the value of the US relationship with the Freely Associated States (FAS).
“The value of the buffer created by US strategic denial over FAS territorial waters is expected to increase as China seeks to realize its blue-water naval ambitions and deepen its security ties with Pacific nations,” it said The report, whose primary authors were Admiral (Retired) Philip Davidson, Brigadier General (Retired) David Stilwell, former US Congressman from Guam Dr. Robert Underwood.
“As Washington seeks to limit the scope of Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific along with regional partners, the US-FAS relationship acts as a key vehicle for strengthening regional norms and democratic values.”
US and Marshall Islands negotiators have both said they hope to conclude talks soon as the existing 20-year financing package expires on September 30, 2023. But the legacy of nuclear testing is the Marshall Islands’ frontier in the sand.
“The entire Compact Negotiation Committee agreed – don’t go,” said Parliament Speaker Kenneth Kedi, who represents Rongelap Atoll, which was contaminated with nuclear test fallout from the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll and other weapons tests.
“It is not advisable to spend more than $100,000 to have our delegation go to Washington without a written response to our proposal. We negotiate in good faith. We submitted our proposal in writing.” But he said on Friday, “There was no response or counter-proposal from the US.”
US and Marshall Islands officials were due to sign a “memorandum of understanding” at the summit as an indication of how discussions are progressing, but that now appears to be off the table.
Marshall Islands President David Kabua, who is currently in the United States after addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday this week, is scheduled to attend the White House-sponsored US-Pacific Islands Summit on September 28-29.
In his speech to the UN, Kabua reiterated that the Marshall Islands has a “strong partnership” with the US, but added: “It is vital that the legacy and current challenges of nuclear testing are better addressed” (during negotiations via the Compact of Free Association). “The exposure of our people and our country has caused impacts that will last – and will last – for generations.”
The Marshall Islands submitted a proposal for a nuclear deal to US negotiators during the second round of talks in July. The US has not responded, Kedi and other members of the negotiating committee said in Majuro on Friday.
In response to questions about the postponement of the scheduled negotiation session, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a brief statement through its embassy in Majuro.
“Regarding the ongoing negotiations on the pact, both sides continue to work diligently towards an agreement,” the statement said. “The President’s special envoy for compact negotiations, Ambassador Joe Yun, is expected to meet with President Kabua while he is in Washington to further advance the talks.”
While the Marshall Islands’ decision to cancel its negotiating group’s attendance at a scheduled meeting in Washington comes as a blow to the Biden administration’s efforts to expedite approval of the security and economic agreement for this strategic North Pacific area, island leaders continue to identify themselves as part the US family.
“The cancellation of the talks demonstrates the seriousness of this issue for the Marshall Islands,” said Alson Kelen, chairman of the National Nuclear Commission. “This is the best time for us to stand up for our rights.”
For decades, the countries of the Pacific Island Forum, who will be represented at next week’s summit of leaders in Washington, have stood behind the Marshall Islands in their quest for a fair and just nuclear solution, said Kelen, who helped negotiators find theirs recently submitted to the US government to develop plan for solving the ongoing problems of the 67 nuclear tests.
“We live with the problem (from the nuclear tests),” said Kelen, a displaced Bikini Islander. “We know the big picture: bombs tested, people resettled from their islands, people exposed to nuclear fallout and people studied. We can’t do anything about that. What we can do now is work on the details today to get the funding needed to mitigate the nuclear legacy problems.”
Kedi said he was weary of US attempts to squabble over legal issues from the Compact of Free Association’s original nuclear test treaty, which was approved 40 years ago, before the Marshall Islands became an independent nation.
That agreement, which provided for a now-defunct $150 million nuclear settlement fund, was called “manifestly insufficient” by the country’s Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which estimated the value of the claims to be over $3 billion over a two-decade period. dollars fixed.
“The bottom line is that the nuclear issue needs to be addressed,” Kedi said.
“We, as family members, have to find a dignified solution. I have made it clear that once these key issues have been addressed, we are ready to sign the compact tomorrow.”
President Kabua is expected to attend the White House-sponsored US-Pacific Islands Summit Sept. 28-29.
Meanwhile, members of his Compact negotiating team in Majuro are awaiting a response from the US government on its proposal to address the nuclear legacy.