2021 has turned out to be a year of strained foreign relations between the United States and many of our traditional allies. It also hasn’t exactly been a banner year for relations with some of our adversaries either, particularly Russia and China. But there may be more ugliness on the way in the coming months, involving a country that doesn’t usually generate very many headlines. A fight is brewing between Washington and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), located in the Pacific between Hawaii and the Philipines. Many people tend to think of RMI as a territory of the United States, which is forgivable because we certainly tend to treat them that way. We keep a lot of military assets there and provide the country with significant financial aid.
Our relationship with RMI, including the duties and obligations of both parties, is spelled out in an agreement known as the Compact of Free Association. The problem is that the current Compact is set to expire in 2023 and the government of RMI is asking for some changes, including requests for compensation for environmental and health damage caused by our nuclear tests conducted there in the 1940s and 1950s. But despite repeated requests for negotiations, the Biden administration has basically ignored the situation and not held any meetings with them all year. This has the Marshallese potentially looking at some other undesirable options. (Associated Press)
U.S. money and jobs have benefited the Marshall Islands’ economy. And many Marshallese have taken advantage of their ability to live and work in the U.S., moving in the thousands to Arkansas, Hawaii and Oklahoma.
But this month, 10 Democratic and Republican members of the House of Representatives wrote to President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, about the U.S. compact talks with the Marshalls, Micronesia and Palau.
“It is distressing that these negotiations do not appear to be a priority — there have been no formal meetings since this Administration began — even as our international focus continues shifting to the Indo-Pacific,” they wrote.
Here’s the serious threat that this lack of attention to the Marshallese poses. If we allow the compact to expire, there’s absolutely nothing stopping the Marshallese government from shopping around for someone else to partner with who might take their concerns more seriously. Given the militarily sensitive position the Marshall Islands occupy in the western Pacific Ocean, would you care to guess who might be interested in replacing us? If you said “China,” give yourself a cookie. And the Chinese are already criticizing our actions and suggesting that they are more than ready to step in.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. should face up to its responsibility to restore the environmental damage it caused with its nuclear tests. It said China was willing to engage with the Marshall Islands and other Pacific island nations on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation under the “One China Principle,” in which Taiwan is viewed as part of China.
“We welcome efforts to boost economic relations and improve the quality of life between the sides,” the ministry said in a statement.
If the compact expires and the RMI is amenable, there would be little to stop China from simply dumping boatloads of money into the Marshallese government and then taking over the naval base and other assets we have constructed there over the past seventy years. That would be an incredible coup for them and a huge blow to our military capabilities in that region of the world. This can’t be allowed to happen and we’re not even talking about all that much money to keep them happy and renew the compact.
How did the White House allow this situation to stay on the sidelines for the entire year until it appears to be reaching a crisis point? It’s not as if Joe Biden would have to take care of it personally. He could have delegated the responsibility to negotiate with them to someone else from the State Department.
Instead, we’re now facing tensions with yet another important ally. We’ve already managed to tick off the French, the Germans and the Greeks (among others) since Joe Biden took office. Foreign policy has been one of his weakest points across the span of his lengthy political career and people were warning the public about that during the election. Some of those other relationships may still be salvaged, but this situation with the Marshall Islands needs to be taken care of before it turns into a permanent disaster. (Just do us a favor and don’t delegate the responsibility to Kamala Harris. I’m sure she’s still very busy fixing the Biden border crisis.)
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