A long-standing agreement that gives the US military access to the Marshall Islands in exchange for financial aid and other benefits lapsed on September 30, The South China Morning Post reported on Monday.
The Post quoted Cleo Paskal, a fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank, who claimed that what just expired with the Marshall Islands was the “financial and federal services component” while the “defense right continues,” signaling the lapsed agreement does not mean the US has to give up its military presence.
The Compact of Free Association (Cofa) agreement between the US and the Marshall Islands was signed in 1986. The US also has Cofa’s with Micronesia and Palau, but the Biden administration was able to negotiate a renewal of those deals.
The issue with the Marshall Islands is that the Pacific Island nation wants more compensation and an apology for the 67 nuclear tests the US conducted on its territory between 1946 and 1958. “What the United States must realize is that Marshallese people require that the nuclear issue be addressed,” Marshallese President David Kabua said at the UN General Assembly on September 20.
The Biden administration has pledged $7 billion for the three Cofa nations, including $2.9 billion for the Marshall Islands, but the Marshall Islands has not accepted the deal, and negotiations are said to be ongoing. Aumua Amata Radewagen, a delegate to the US House for American Samoa, told Voice of America that negotiators are hoping to reach an agreement this month.
According to Howard Hills, who was previously a member of the US Cofa negotiating team, the only hold-up is the State Department’s legal view of the nuclear funds. The US paid a $150 million settlement to the Marshall Islands in 1986 that the State Department said was the “full settlement of all claims” related to US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.
While the $150 million fell well short of what’s needed to clean up all the radioactive debris the US left behind, the State Department won’t let any funds be designated for that purpose. “If it were not for the State Department legal position, this could have been done in 2020. It could have been done in 2021. It could have been done in 2022,” Hills said.
The US views renewing the Cofas as key to its strategy against China in the region. The US claims that the Cofa agreements give it the right to keep other militaries out of the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the Pacific Island nations, which extend 200 miles from their coastlines, a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean.
According to international law, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), all countries have the right to navigation in EEZs of other nations. The US never ratified UNCLOS so it is not a party to the treaty, but the US has also rejected China’s claims to the South China Sea using UNCLOS, an example of the US international law only where it suits its interests.