In the spring of 2022, news leaked that Solomon Islands was about to sign a new security pact with China. That served as a harsh awakening for the United States that Beijing’s influence in the Pacific Islands region was growing. Since then, Washington has majorly stepped up its engagement with the regional countries, highlighted by the U.S.-Pacific Islands Country summit in September 2022. A second iteration of the summit is planned for the fall of 2023. How are U.S. efforts being received in the Pacific Island states?
The Diplomat interviewed Camilla Pohle, a senior program specialist at the United States Institute of Peace focusing on peace and stability in the Pacific Islands, about the United States’ Pacific Islands policies over the past year. Pohle, who previously worked for the U.S. government as a political analyst covering the Pacific Islands, discusses the importance of COFA arrangements, Biden’s missed trip to Papua New Guinea, and more.
In May, the United States signed deals to renew economic assistance to Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia under the Compacts of Free Association. How important are these deals for the U.S. strategy in the Pacific Islands?
The Compacts of Free Association are crucial for U.S. engagement in the Pacific Islands under Washington’s Pacific Partnership Strategy. The United States has uniquely strong relationships with Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands that allow the U.S. military to use their territories, waters, and airspace for defense purposes. Renewing economic assistance to Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia will be essential for funding their government budgets, as well as infrastructure, maintenance, health and education, and will contribute extensively to ensuring that their ties with the United States are mutually beneficial.
The funding also has a symbolic significance. The Compacts of Free Association have no analog anywhere else in the world, and the far-reaching nature of these agreements signifies the special relationships between the Freely Associated States and Washington. As a result, Pacific Island countries consider these relationships to be a core responsibility for the United States and a barometer of its commitment and disposition towards the region more broadly. (Washington’s policies in Hawai’i and U.S. territories are measured similarly.)
The Federated States of Micronesia and Palau will receive a promising $3.3 billion and $760 million respectively over the next 20 years if the U.S. Congress approves the funding. The “if” is key. There is a high level of support in the U.S. government for reengagement in the Pacific Islands, but budgets have been delayed before, to Palau’s detriment. If there is a delay in passing the budget, it would undermine much of the progress Washington has made in the region since the U.S.-Pacific Islands summit last year. China would then use it as a talking point to paint Washington as weak, unreliable, and in decline.
The United States has not reached a deal to renew Compact funding to the Marshall Islands, and the current funding expires in September. What are the stumbling blocks in these negotiations, and how close are the two sides to reaching an agreement?
“No nuclear, no Compact.” This was the phrase I heard when I visited Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, in April. It means that the country won’t accept a deal without compensation for U.S. nuclear testing.
The United States detonated 67 nuclear weapons there between 1946 and 1958, when it administered the islands as part of a U.N. trust territory. The nuclear tests rendered whole islands uninhabitable, displaced communities from their native lands, and caused immediate and long-term health problems, including radiation poisoning, miscarriages, stillbirths, and cancer. The tests exposed the Marshall Islands to a radiation level equivalent to detonating 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs each day for 12 years. The United States later resettled Marshallese on islands that U.S. officials knew were unsafe for human habitation, and U.S. scientists studied the effects of radiation on them without their knowledge, according to information declassified in the 1990s.
In 1986, the two sides reached a financial settlement to compensate the Marshall Islands for the nuclear tests, but Majuro views it as unfair. The settlement was signed on the cusp of Marshallese independence, when Washington had much more negotiating power. In addition, the United States withheld information about the nuclear waste it had buried in Marshallese territory, the range of nuclear fallout, the danger to the Marshallese people, and the secret research conducted by U.S. scientists on the Marshallese population, among other things. The Marshall Islands government believes these facts entitle the country to more compensation.
Meanwhile, the United States considers the 1986 deal a “full and final settlement” and did not answer the Marshall Islands’ petition to reopen it in 2000, although the U.S. State Department has said it is exploring other ways to provide assistance. The U.S. government has also said that Runit Dome – a concrete tomb on Enewetak Atoll containing nuclear waste – is Majuro’s responsibility because it is on Marshallese land.
In 2003, when the last Compact funding agreement was negotiated, nuclear compensation talks went nowhere: Washington would not reopen the 1986 settlement. As a result, some Marshallese consider the 2003 Compact an unfair deal. In 2020, many hoped that the new round of negotiations would provide an opportunity to revive compensation talks, but U.S. policy still did not change. In 2022, the Marshall Islands called off Compact talks in frustration, saying a deal was impossible without addressing the nuclear legacy. Talks eventually resumed – but the Marshallese position remains firm. It is unclear when the two sides may reach an agreement. The legacy of nuclear tests remains the most significant rift between the Marshall Islands and the United States, and far from healing over the years, it has festered. Now that Washington is paying closer attention to the Pacific Islands, Majuro may judge that it has more leverage to negotiate. It will take time, but the United States must arrive at a deal that is fair to both parties. The strength of the U.S.-Marshall Islands relationship depends on it. So does the United States’ reputation in the region.
Palau and the Marshall Islands are among 13 countries worldwide that recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan). Is keeping that status quo an important piece of the U.S. Pacific strategy?
Keeping the status quo is not part of the U.S. Pacific strategy, but it is a preferred state of affairs for the U.S. government. In 2019, Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing, reducing the number of Taiwan’s Pacific partners from six to four: the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu. The United States seeks to prevent China from gaining influence in the Freely Associated States, where Washington has key interests.
But they are independent countries with independent foreign policies, and the United States cannot prevent them from engaging with China. The Federated States of Micronesia recognizes Beijing, and so did the Marshall Islands from 1990 to 1998.
U.S. President Joe Biden canceled a much-anticipated visit to Port Moresby in late May due to debt ceiling talks in Washington. The United States still signed the two Compact funding deals and a Defense Cooperation Agreement with Papua New Guinea, but were there costs to Biden’s cancellation?
In February, five Pacific Island leaders issued a communique emphasizing the value of Biden visiting the region, and when the White House announced his visit to Papua New Guinea, expectations rose further. As a result, Biden’s cancellation was met with proportional disappointment from the public and from Pacific Island leaders who had flown to Port Moresby for the occasion.
The diplomatic costs of the cancellation may be difficult to measure, but there are costs. It would have been the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to a Pacific Island country and would have visibly underscored U.S. commitment to the region. Instead, the cancellation illustrated one of many reasons why the Pacific Islands feel neglected by Washington: They are often fly-over countries when U.S. officials travel, not destinations.
The prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand usually visit multiple Pacific Island countries during their terms in office – made easier by proximity – but leaders outside the region visit too. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Fiji in 2014 and Papua New Guinea in 2018. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Port Moresby in May 2023.
To make up for Biden’s cancellation, the White House is planning a second U.S.-Pacific Islands summit. But the more that senior U.S. officials visit Pacific Island countries, instead of inviting leaders to Washington, the better. The best way to make up for Biden’s canceled visit would be to plan a new one and follow through.
How would you evaluate the United States’ Pacific Islands strategy since the shock of China’s security deal with Solomon Islands last year?
The United States has opened embassies in Solomon Islands and Tonga, with others planned in Kiribati and Vanuatu. It has signed agreements to renew Compact funding to Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, and requested nearly triple the funds from the U.S. Congress for the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, all pending approval. It has signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement and a shiprider agreement with Papua New Guinea, expanded its shiprider agreement with the Federated States of Micronesia, and increased U.S. Coast Guard operations in the region. High-level visits, although not by Biden, have still helped to show Washington’s commitment. Meanwhile, the United States has done well to emphasize its goal of strengthening U.S.-Pacific relations – not countering China – even if the strategy is intended to do both.
But Pacific Island countries are hoping for more from Washington. As much as humanitarian assistance helps with the effects of climate change, they also want the United States to reduce its own emissions, which they see as a crucial way to combat this existential threat. In the Marshall Islands, Washington must grapple with the legacy of nuclear testing, which has poisoned the environment, the people’s health, and the two countries’ relationship, causing decades of distrust. In former World War II battlegrounds, the United States must build on its efforts to remove unexploded ordnance. It must allow veterans of the U.S. military in the Freely Associated States to access their healthcare benefits without flying to Hawaiʻi. And after raising expectations, it must overcome barriers to returning Peace Corps volunteers to the region. Finally, it must follow through on Compact funding. If Washington cannot do these things, it risks jeopardizing its progress on the Pacific Partnership Strategy so far.