Friendly starts to compact talks

GIFF JOHNSON

Nearly three years after the first in-person preliminary discussions were held between the US and the Marshall Islands for a third funding agreement in the Compact, negotiations resumed again this week with a two-day meeting at Kwajalein.

The negotiations stalled after these first discussions were held in Pohnpei between President Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and RMI President Hilda Heine, and leaders of the FSM and Palau in early August 2019.

US Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations Ambassador Joseph Yun is greeted by US Ambassador to RMI Roxanne Cabral at Bucholz Army Airfield following his arrival Tuesday this week at Kwajalein. A saluting Marine airman and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Keone Nakoa are also pictured. Photo: US Army/Jessica Dambruch.

The following year, the Covid pandemic hit, both Trump and Heine were voted out of office, and the Biden and Kabua administrations took over. While there were intermittent virtual conversations between US and RMI leaders in 2020 and 2021, Compact “negotiations” were at a standstill.

President Biden injected a shot of momentum to the Compact picture when he named special envoy for Compact negotiations Ambassador Joseph Yun in late March. Less than three months since he was appointed, Yun this week Tuesday arrived at Kwajalein to initiate the first round of face-to-face — albeit it with everyone wearing face masks — talks on the Compact.

Yun and his delegation were flown into Kwajalein on a US Marine Corps aircraft. They launched the first in-person Compact talks since 2019 Tuesday afternoon following the US delegation’s arrival.

The RMI team, led by new Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua, met with the US delegation in a specially designated meeting area in the large multipurpose room at the junior-senior high school at the military base on Kwajalein.

“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 to the Journal. “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 in a timely manner with good results for all. The US remains committed to the RMI’s development through the Compact of Free Association.”

Minister Kabua told the Journal Wednesday: “The Government of the RMI 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. 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.”

A long list of Covid-prevention protocols were being implemented to make it possible for this in-person meeting, including multiple Covid tests of all participants.

Yun and team were in the RMI at the invitation of President Kabua, who wanted the first negotiating session to be in the Marshall Islands.

The first day featured no substantive discussions, according to people involved in the discussion. Two people at the talks the Journal spoke with indicated that the “discussions were cordial and (showed) desire by both sides to work hard towards a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

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