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HomeAsiaIs the COFA Saga Finally Coming to an End? – The Diplomat

Is the COFA Saga Finally Coming to an End? – The Diplomat

The protracted Compacts of Free Association saga may imminently conclude, if the U.S. Senate passes the omnibus bill designed to avert yet another government shutdown by the deadline of midnight, March 8. Tucked away in section G, under “other matters,” is the legislation approving the third round funding renewal for the 20-year agreements that bind the United States to the nations of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. These agreements have been the bedrock of the U.S. Pacific presence since the mid-1980s, when the former U.N. Trust Territories of Micronesia became three independent nations freely associated with their former ruler. The Northern Marianas formed a commonwealth and became the third U.S. territory in the Pacific, along with Guam and American Samoa. The third round of compact negotiations was dogged by inertia and inattention. Notoriously complicated, these compacts require the involvement of multiple U.S. government agencies led by the Department of the Interior, with bewildering financial and administrative complexities. Matching this gargantuan U.S. bureaucracy have been the lean negotiating teams from the COFA states, who have experienced frustrations and challenges as the new financial packages and the terms they would operate under were hammered out. For the Marshall Islands, the nuclear legacy stemming from the U.S. atomic testing program that operated from 1946 to 1958 hung over this round, as it did the first round in the 1980s and the second in the early 2000s. In mid-2023, a new team of RMI negotiators stalled signing the agreement because of the ongoing, and from the RMI perspective unresolved, nuclear issue. As the clock ran down on the past agreements that expired at last year’s end, the RMI did ultimately sign in October 2023. Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia signed their agreements in May 2023. Then the COFA agreements stalled in the dysfunctional U.S. Congress that must approve them. The prospect of these agreements failing to be approved caused widespread alarm in the COFA states and their substantial diaspora communities resident in the United States, who can recite the COFA terms chapter and verse, an indication of how pivotal these agreements are to their daily lives now and in the future. The geopolitical specter of China also loomed large over the faltering negotiations. Palau and the RMI continue to recognize Taiwan, but China is working on multiple levels to pry away these states from the shrinking list of those loyal to Taiwan. At the same time, Beijing is actively working to erode Pacific countries’ ties to the United States. In the multiple, alarmed media reports, analyses, and impassioned letters to Congress that have been written over the past weeks as the COFA legislation has been jostled around, a nightmare scenario for the U.S. has been laid out starkly: losing the unmatched benefits these agreements deliver in terms of strategic positioning in the Pacific. Congress members from across the aisle, like Hawai’i’s Ed Case (D) and Arkansas’ Steve Womack (R), and their staff, worked tirelessly to overcome the legislative challenges and reassure the COFA states that the U.S. was honoring its commitment to these nations and the Pacific region as a whole. There is an inescapable historical synchronicity to the COFA saga ending this week, as March 1 and March 6 (the day the House passed the bill) represent monumental days in the history of U.S. atomic testing, which are commemorated annually in the Marshall Islands. March 1 marks the 1954 Bravo Test, which exposed hundreds of Marshallese to nuclear fallout, and March 6 marks the day that the people of Bikini Atoll were removed from their ancestral home in 1946 to make way for Operation Crossroads. One of the most abhorrent quotes that encapsulates historic U.S. attitudes toward the Pacific peoples they were entrusted to govern by the U.N. between 1947 and the mid-1980s is attributed to Henry Kissinger. Kissinger reputedly said “there’s only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn.” Kissinger’s quote is often attached to studies of U.S. atomic testing in the Marshall Islands as an illustration of the contemptible disregard the U.S. government had for these people’s lives and wellbeing. In fact, Kissinger uttered these notorious words in 1969, long after atomic testing had ended, though the fallout continued in multiple ways. He said it when the prospect of future compacts with the Micronesian Islands the U.S. governed as U.N. Trust Territories were first being thought out, following on from New Zealand’s arrangement with the Cook Islands. Kissinger was then the secretary of state in the Nixon administration. According to Walter Hinkel, who was Nixon’s secretary of interior, Kissinger said these words during a heated exchange with Hinkel about whether the United States should retain eminent domain in any future freely associated Pacific nations or territories, trampling Indigenous land rights that were a contentious grievance with the United States at the time. Hinkel wrote he was “totally shocked by this remark,” which seemed to him “an inhuman approach to a situation involving human beings.” Hinkel’s revulsion at Kissinger’s remark and U.S. policy decisions predicated on this attitude put him at odds with how the U.S. proceeded with the nuclear legacy in the Nixon and Ford eras. In 1975, a U.S. government proposal put forward a plan for the construction of a nuclear waste dump on Runit Island, in one of the craters made during the 43 atomic tests carried out on Enewetak Atoll, where the testing program was moved from Bikini in 1948. Four options for “crater encryption” were suggested that ranged in cost from $9 million and 18 months of work to $36 million and 42 months. The report recommended the cheapest option and noted that “the concept of containing these contaminated materials in a completely impermeable vessel is quite unrealistic in the context of the northern islands of the Enewetak atoll.” Nevertheless, the Runit Dome was constructed in the late 1970s prior to the end of the trust era. It contains waste from testing in the Marshall Islands and Nevada. It is now leaking radioactive material as the mid-1970s engineers said it would, even before the additional damaging impacts of rising seas. The Runit Dome and how it is to be maintained going forward is at the center of the RMI’s additional claims for compensation that held up their signing of the COFA agreement until October 2023. These issues were not resolved, but they need to be as part of the next phase of COFA work that needs to be done. The United States has much to live down after over seven decades of involvement in the northern Pacific Islands. The most recent COFA saga has once again damaged the U.S. image in the region. To some, the COFA saga is proof that despite the alliance rhetoric, Washington is unreliable, and this is on top of deep concerns felt at the prospect of another Trump administration. These sentiments have substantial political impact in the COFA nations themselves. The RMI and the FSM had presidential elections in 2023, but the simmering issues of China, Taiwan, and U.S. relations continue to impact both nations. Palau has presidential elections in November 2024. The incumbent president, Surangel Whipps, will undoubtedly face opponents, as he did in 2020, who will point to the U.S. conduct as a way to make the case for Palau to abandon Taiwan and move closer to China. The United States cannot rest on any laurels as far as the COFA states are concerned, even when the legislation for the next 20 years is finally approved. What can Washington do now to overcome the negative perceptions the COFA saga has created? First, there should be a summit of U.S. and Freely Associated State leadership to map out the path forward. This needs to happen well in advance of the November elections. By 2043, when the next COFA agreements are negotiated (if they have not been dissolved by, say, successful Chinese campaigns to that end) it is very likely that an even greater number of COFA citizens will have become migrants to the United States. The daily pressures of rising seas, flagging economies, poor healthcare, and education, will continue to drive COFA citizens to the U.S. The well-being of these migrants and the opportunities they can secure for better and more prosperous lives in the U.S. will directly correlate…


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