US-RMI engaged in spat?

Marshall Islands High School students engage in a tug-of-war during their recent field day. The writer contends that the RMI is not engaged in a “spat” with the US, as postulated by a headline writer for the Associated Press last weekend. But the Marshall Islands does have issues that need to be addressed beyond grant aid and the trust fund. Photo: Wilmer Joel.

Editorial comment

The United States is a clear but unfocused partner of the Marshall Islands. “Unfocused” in contrast to China, its primary competitor in the region.

On the one hand, there are countless US Congress people and administration officials jumping up and down about the increasing importance of the “Indo-Pacific” region (by the way, that’s where RMI is, in the Indo-Pacific).

Still on this hand, there are an increasing number of studies conducted — some funded by the US Defense Department and other US government entities — and news articles written that discuss the same issue: The Indo-Pacific region is of great importance to the US and in particular, the Freely Associated States (yes, RMI again) are a key part of the security and defense picture for the United States. This past weekend, the Associated Press issued a story on the theme of US-China interests in the region headlined: “Some fear China could win from US spat with Marshall Islands.”

On the other hand, there are the US administration officials who say things like, “no, we’re not going to address the nuclear issue in the Compact talks.” For example, the Associated Press article this past weekend quoted an unnamed US administration official: “We know that’s important (nuclear legacy), but there is a full and final settlement, and both sides agreed to it,” said a senior US official who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss the issue and spoke on condition of anonymity. “So, that issue is just not subject to being reopened. But, we’re still quite willing to work with the (Marshallese) on the broader issues that are important to us and that’s what we hope to do.”

But what if “that issue” is THE issue for the Marshall Islands? A few in Washington might not want to hear it, but if “that issue” isn’t discussed as a problem among friends to be resolved in an amicable and satisfactory fashion, it appears doubtful that the Marshall Islands will be sitting at a negotiating table to discuss “broader issues that are important to us.” (Perhaps, too, we should request the US administration to define the term “us” as used in the quote above).

In truth, the Marshall Islands isn’t engaged in a “spat” with the US as the AP headline suggested. But it does have issues that need to be addressed beyond grant aid and the trust fund. No doubt, the US government itself could turn the negotiations into a spat if it chooses to do so.

The Marshall Islands is a US ally: was, is and will be. While the US-China strategic one-upmanship game in this region isn’t of the RMI’s making or interest, we certainly pay attention and understand the dynamics at play and the stakes of this game. We note things such as Kiribati announcing it is planning to open the vast Phoenix Island Protected Area to fishing with the most obvious beneficiary being…China. We note the FSM’s announcement this past week of a $150,000 grant from China that it is using to pay bills for quarantine of its citizens in Guam and to buy medicines. We recall, too, how the Trump administration’s sudden announcement in August 2019 that it wanted to negotiate a third grant aid package to replace the expiring one followed only two weeks after China announced it was contributing $2 million to the FSM government’s national trust fund — a national trust fund that the US Government Accountability Office and others have been repeatedly saying was not going to be large enough to provide a stable transition from grants to trust fund revenue for the FSM.

The Marshall Islands doesn’t wish to engage in a battle or spat with any country, least of all the US, its major donor and partner. At the same time, it wishes to be treated fairly and justly. A simple comparison of how the US government has managed its Radiation Exposure Compensation Act for American Downwinder victims of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site and how it has stonewalled the RMI is instructive. The RECA program started with a $100 million appropriation. As more claims were filed, processed and awarded, the US Congress repeatedly added money to the compensation fund. Thirty years later, the US Congress has put in over $2 billion to satisfy awards made under RECA. Contrast that with the first Compact’s Cold War era agreement providing a $150 million nuclear trust fund: 35 years later, we have a nuclear waste storage site that is unmanaged and largely unmonitored with no way to determine the health and environmental damage it is causing; we have multiple atolls, and parts of atolls, that cannot be resettled because of radiation safety problems; we have awards approved by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal — an entity established by the Compact of Free Association — that remain unpaid to this day; many claims from islanders have languished for two decades for lack of a compensation program; and little access to medical care for victims of US nuclear weapons testing.

Several years ago, the US Defense Department hired the RAND Corporation to evaluate the US-FAS relationship and the geopolitical environment with China in the region. In 2019, RAND issued its report, “America’s Pacific Island Allies: The Freely Associated States and Chinese Influence.”

Worth noting is this observation by the RAND report: “Going forward, the United States, its allies, and its partners should demonstrate their commitment to the region by maintaining appropriate levels of funding to the FAS, and strengthening engagement with the FAS more broadly. Failure to do so would be a self-inflicted wound that could come at the expense of the foreign policy and defense interests of the United States and its allies and partners.”

The looming end of the Compact’s grant assistance — and the potential door this opens to expanded Chinese influence “should serve as a catalyst for the opening of a productive new chapter in how the United States and its allies and partners engage with the FAS,” said the RAND review.

“As it did in earlier Compact negotiations, the US has stonewalled discussions on the nuclear legacy,” reported the Associated Press in its story at the weekend.

This suggests to us that the US government staff handling the negotiations for the US government do not view the expiring provisions of the Compact as an opportunity “for the opening of a productive new chapter” in US-Marshall Islands relations.

Nevertheless, from our vantage point, this isn’t cause for alarm. The Marshall Islands is in a good position to keep being friendly but firm in advancing its needs. Time will tell if the US government will, in fact, avoid self-inflicting a wound. Either way, that is its prerogative.


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