The United States agreements with Micronesian states are looking likely to be renewed, with US special envoy Joseph Yun having held talks with the Republic of Marshall Islands this week.
Mr Yun arrived in the Marshall Islands on a US Military aircraft and held talks with newly appointed Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua.
He signaled the US’s commitment to the Compact of Free Association (COFA). He also becomes the first US envoy to visit the islands to talk about the deal in person.
The COFA provided to Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Palau by the US federal government provides guaranteed financial assistance over a 15-year period administered through its Office of Insular Affairs, in exchange for full international defense authority and responsibilities.
In 2003, a 20 year US$3.5 billion deal was signed with the FSM and Marshall Islands, which is coming to an end next year.
This deal also allows the US to operate armed forces in Compact areas and to demand land for operating bases, subject to negotiation, and excludes the militaries of other countries without US permission.
The US in turn becomes responsible for protecting its affiliate countries and for administering all international defense treaties and affairs, though it may not declare war on their behalf.
Marshall Islands President David Kabua had invited the US to start negotiation on the island state after it was stalled under the Trump administration and pushed further back due to the COVID pandemic.
“I am grateful to President Kabua for his kind invitation to host our delegation here in the Marshall Islands, and I appreciate the great efforts undertaken to bring us here during these unprecedented times,” said Yun in a brief statement.
“Foreign Minister Kabua and I are having very productive discussions and making considerable progress. There is much work to be done, and we are optimistic our talks will be completed promptly with good results for all. The US remains committed to the RMI’s development through the Compact of Free Association,” Yun said.
President Kabua said the discussions were cordial.
“The Government of the Marshall Islands is thankful to US Special Presidential Envoy Joseph Yun and his team for traveling long distances and going through strict Covid-19 quarantine protocols to start the first round of talks in Kwajalein,” he said.
“The negotiations started this week in an atmosphere of cordiality and kinship. Both sides recognize that much work remains to be done and all are eager to work collaboratively in the spirit of kinship to produce a mutually beneficial win-win arrangement.”
For the US, COFA is very important as it provides them with strategic military positions in the Pacific.
Blinken calls Panuelo
The United States effort towards more engagement with their Pacific partners is taking a positive turn.
First there was an in-person visit to the Marshall Islands by special envoy Joseph Yun followed by a phone call from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) David Panuelo.
Mr Blinken thanked Mr Panuelo for his leadership that led to unification of the Pacific Islands Forum and drafting of the Suva Agreement.
In a statement by Mr Panuelo, he said FSM reiterated that the US was its first and foremost ally, and that the FSM will never take any action, or allow any action to be taken, that would threaten their relationship.
He thanked Secretary Blinken for both his leadership and the leadership of the US Government at large. He said that the US playing a leadership role in promoting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific “benefits our global community and Indo-Pacific region, especially our Blue Pacific Continent.”
Mr Panuelo said he hoped that discussions on the Compact of Free Association with the US would be finalised by September.
FSM, Marshall Islands and Palau are heavily assisted by the US under the Compact.
Mr Panuelo said they wanted climate change to be at the forefront of the Compact discussions because it is the biggest threat to the region.
He added that in-person discussions need to happen regularly. He said this was evident when the Suva Agreement was drafted, and there will be more interactions with the US.
Mr Panuelo solicited Mr Blinken’s support in ensuring a meaningful, visible, and interactive US presence at the forthcoming Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders to be held in Hawaii in September.
FSM has guaranteed the US their full-throated support of human rights in the coming days.
With the US stronghold on the Micronesian states, its looking difficult for China to strike a regional deal.
From the onset, it looks as though the US’s influence and financing of the nations under Compact could also impact how their votes sway or even hinder the so called ‘Pacific solidarity’ that has been renewed of late.
For now, the US is assuring the nations that the Compact will be renewed, which means another 15 years of aid amounting to millions of dollars and US military presence in these states until then.