US-RMI seek quick deal

GIFF JOHNSON

United States and Marshall Islands leaders said after completing the first round of talks last week that they hope to complete negotiations to renew provisions of an economic and security treaty by the end of this year or early next year.

Washington sees extension of funding packages under compacts of free association with the Marshall Islands and neighbors Federated States of Micronesia and Palau as a hedge against expanding Chinese diplomatic influence in the Pacific island region.

The chief negotiators for the two sides said June 17 in a joint statement that they are aiming for an early milestone: To sign a memorandum of understanding before the US fiscal year ends September 30.

The 20-year funding agreement in the current Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands and the FSM expires at the end of 2023. In addition to extending US funding support, Marshall Islands leaders are seeking US support address certain issues at the Kwajalein missile range, to resolve its nuclear weapons test legacy that has left islands uninhabitable due to high radiation levels and continues to cause health problems for many islanders, and to bring climate adaptation and mitigation measures into the agreement.

“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,” Ambassador Joseph Yun, President Biden’s special envoy for Compact negotiations, said Wednesday as the first round of talks were ongoing in the Marshall Islands.

The first in-person negotiating session to renew provisions of a Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Marshall Islands took place at the US Army base at Kwajalein June 14-16. US Ambassador Joseph Yun is in the front of the US negotiation team at left in the photo next to the US flag, while Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua stands next to a Marshall Islands flag with her negotiation group. Photo: Courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua headed her country’s negotiation team and used the words “kinship” and “cordial” to describe the environment of the negotiations. The Marshall Islands were a United Nations Trust Territory of the US from shortly after World War II until 1986, when the first Compact of Free Association came into affect. The Marshall Islands is an independent nation and a UN member but through the Compact it gives the US control of defense in exchange for ongoing grants and access to the US federal programs ranging from immunizations to postal services.

Parliament Speaker Kenneth Kedi, who is a member of the Marshall Islands negotiating team but did not participate in last week’s talks because he was in quarantine following the country’s Covid prevention entry requirements, said late last week that he is optimistic about the negotiations based on several meetings he had with Yun in Washington, DC last month.  “I agree with the ambassador’s view to conclude the talks sooner rather than later,” Kedi said by phone from his quarantine room at the Army base on Kwajalein. “I told the ambassador in Washington that if Washington addresses the key issues, we’ll sign tomorrow.”

The Speaker said the political environment in Washington is supportive of addressing Marshall Islands needs as part of maintaining close ties with the island nation. “I feel very optimistic about the negotiations,” Kedi said. “If we can’t address all the key pillars (sought by the Marshall Islands) by the deadline later this year, at least strike a MOU to agree to address the issues.”

Kabua and Yun met at the US Army base at Kwajalein Atoll from June 14-16 for their first round of in-person negotiations on the Compact of Free Association.

In a joint statement issued by Kabua and Yun Friday, they affirmed the importance of continuing Compact financial assistance, including federal programs, beyond 2023. In the current fiscal year budget, Compact grants and federal programs for education, health and other activities amount to over $100 million out of a $242 million budget.

Yun affirmed his willingness to support continuation of US funding to the Marshall Islands so long as good faith negotiations are ongoing.

Kabua and Yun said they held “positive discussions,” and will “work toward a Memorandum of Understanding for the Marshall Islands and United States to sign by the end of September 2022 in Washington, DC.” They announced the goal to complete the Compact talks by late fall or early winter.

The next round of in-person talks is scheduled to be held in Washington, DC in late July.

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