Some fear China could win the US feud with the Marshall Islands

WELLINGTON – For decades, the tiny Marshall Islands have been a staunch American ally. Its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has made it an important strategic outpost for the US military.

But that loyalty is tested during a dispute with Washington over the terms of its “Compact of Free Association” agreement, which is due to expire. The US refuses to implicate the Marshallese in claims for environmental and health damage caused by dozens of nuclear tests it conducted in the 1940s and 50s, including a massive thermonuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll.

The dispute has led some US lawmakers to fear that China may be willing to step in, adding to a crushing competition for geopolitical dominance between the two superpowers.

Since World War II, the US has treated the Marshall Islands, along with Micronesia and Palau, like territories. In the Marshall Islands, the US has developed military, intelligence and space facilities in a region where China is particularly active.

In turn, US money and jobs have been beneficial to the Marshall Islands economy. And many Marshallese have taken advantage of their ability to live and work in the US and have moved by the thousands to Arkansas, Hawaii and Oklahoma.

But this month, 10 Democratic and Republican members of the United States House of Representatives wrote to Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, about the US’s tight-knit talks with the Marshalls, Micronesia and Palau.

“It is alarming that these negotiations do not appear to be a priority – there have been no formal meetings since this administration began – even as our international focus continues to shift towards the Indo-Pacific,” they wrote.

Lawmakers said the slowdowns put the US in a weaker position, and “China is all too willing to step in and provide the much-needed investment in infrastructure and climate resilience that these longtime partners are looking for.”

China’s foreign ministry said the US must take responsibility for repairing the environmental damage it has caused with its nuclear tests. It said China was willing to cooperate with the Marshall Islands and other Pacific island nations on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation under the “One China Principle,” which sees Taiwan as part of China.

“We welcome efforts to strengthen economic relations and improve the quality of life between the parties,” the ministry said in a statement.

China has been steadily poaching allies from Taiwan in the Pacific, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, in 2019. This week, angry protesters in the Solomon Islands set fire to buildings and looted shops in unrest that some have linked to the switch to China.

James Matayoshi, the mayor of Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, said he and hundreds of others have been evicted from their atoll since the nuclear tests and they want to see it revived. He said officials have spoken to potential investors from Asia after an earlier proposal from a Chinese-Marshallese businessman fell through.

“It would be a business transaction. We are not advocating war or any superpower influence,” Matayoshi said. “But we want to be able to live in our backyard and enjoy life here.”

Like many others in the Marshall Islands, Matayoshi believes that a $150 million US settlement agreed in the 1980s was far from being enough to address the nuclear legacy. He said his late mother was pregnant at the time of a massive nuclear explosion and exposed to radiation equivalent to 25,000 X-rays before giving birth to a stillborn baby.

But the US stance has been static for more than 20 years, the last time the pact was renegotiated. The US insists nuclear compensation is settled in a “full and final settlement” and cannot be reopened.

Marshallese Senator David Paul – who sits on the islands’ negotiating committee and also represents Kwajalein Atoll, which is home to a major US military base – said persistently high cancer rates and the displacement of people remain major problems.

“Everyone knows that the negotiations at the time were not fair or equitable,” said Paul. “If you look at the total cost of property damage and the ongoing health problems to date, that’s a drop in the ocean. It’s an insult.”

Various estimates put the true cost of the damage at about $3 billion, including for repairs to a massive nuclear waste facility known as the Cactus Dome, which environmentalists say is leaking toxic waste into the ocean.

A report from the U.S. Department of Energy to Congress last year said the dome contains more than 76,000 cubic meters of radioactively contaminated soil and debris, but the structure was not in immediate danger of failure. The report concluded that contaminated groundwater flowing under the structure had no measurable impact on the environment.

As in previous compact negotiations, the US has thwarted discussions about its nuclear legacy, something US officials acknowledge.

“We know that’s important, but there is a full and final settlement, and both sides have agreed to it,” said a senior US official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So that issue just can’t be reopened. But we’re still quite willing to work with the (Marshallese) on the wider issues that matter to us and that’s what we hope to do.”

The US State Department said the Indo-Pacific is central to US foreign policy.

“We are prioritizing success in the negotiations of the pacts with the freely associated states as an objective of regional foreign policy,” the department said.

The Marshallese’s frustrations were apparent in a letter last month that Secretary of State Casten Nemra sent to Representative Katie Porter, a California Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s oversight and investigative panel.

“The concerned State and Interior Ministry officials were unwilling to discuss an agenda for the talks and tried to limit the discussion to their own limited proposals,” Nemra wrote. “The nuclear issue was clearly one of the reasons. All the issues raised by the Marshall Islands were answered with claims that they had no authority to discuss the matters without any indication that they would look into it.

sen. Paul said the US approach needs to change.

“I believe the US has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that they clean up this rubble,” said Paul. “We want to make sure we get a better deal this time. As they say, the third time is a charm.”

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