Some fear that China may win from the US spear with the Marshall Islands

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – For decades, the small Marshall Islands have been a loyal American ally. Its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has made it an important strategic outpost for the US military.

The dispute has some U.S. lawmakers worried that China may be willing to step into the breach, contributing to oppressive competition for geopolitical dominance between the two superpowers.

Since World War II, the United States, along with Micronesia and Palau, has treated the Marshall Islands much like territories. In the Marshall Islands, the United States has developed military, intelligence and aerospace facilities in a region where China is particularly active.

In return, US money and jobs have benefited the Marshall Islands economy. And many Marshallese have taken advantage of their ability to live and work in the United States, 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 United States’ compact negotiations with Marshalls, Micronesia and Palau.

“It is worrying that these negotiations do not appear to be a priority – there have been no formal meetings since this administration started – although our international focus continues to shift to the Indo-Pacific,” they wrote.

Lawmakers said the delays put the United States in a weaker position, and “China is far too ready to step in and deliver the desperately needed investment in infrastructure and climate resilience that these longtime partners are demanding.”

China’s foreign ministry said the United States should take responsibility for repairing 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”, where Taiwan is considered part of China.

“We welcome efforts to strengthen economic ties and improve the quality of life between the parties,” the ministry said in a statement.

China has steadily poached allies from Taiwan in the Pacific, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in 2019. Just this week, angry protesters in the Solomon Islands set fire to buildings and looted shops in unrest that some have linked to the China shift.

James Matayoshi, the mayor of Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, said he and hundreds of others have been displaced from their atoll since the nuclear tests and want to see it revived. He said officials have spoken to potential investors from Asia after a previous proposal from a Sino-Marshallese businessman fell through.

“It would be a business transaction. We are not in favor of war or any superpower influence,” Matayoshi said, “but we want to be able to live in our backyard and enjoy life here.”

Like many others in the Marshall Islands, Matayoshi believes a $ 150 million US settlement agreed in the 1980s could not resolve the nuclear legacy. He said his deceased mother was pregnant at the time of a massive nuclear explosion and was exposed to radiation equivalent to 25,000 x-rays before giving birth to a stillborn baby.

But the U.S. position has been static for more than 20 years, the last time the compact came up for renegotiation. The United States maintains that nuclear compensation was dealt with in a “complete and final settlement” and cannot be reopened.

Marshallese Senator David Paul – who is on the islands’ negotiating committee and also represents Kwajalein Atoll, home to a large US military base – said that continued high cancer rates and displacement of people remain huge problems.

Various estimates put the true cost of the damage at about $ 3 billion, including for repairs to a massive nuclear waste facility known as the Cactus Dome, which environmentalists say is leaking toxic waste into the ocean.

A report to Congress last year from the U.S. Department of Energy said the dome contains over 100,000 cubic meters (76,000 cubic meters) of radioactively contaminated soil and debris, but the structure was not in any immediate danger of failing. The report concluded that contaminated groundwater flowing beneath the structure does not have a measurable impact on the environment.

As it did in previous compact negotiations, the United States has blocked discussions on the nuclear legacy, something that US officials acknowledge.

“We know it is important, but there is a complete and final solution, and both sides agree on it,” said a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. “So that question is just not conditional on being reopened. But we are still quite willing to work with (the Marshallese) on the broader issues that are important to us, and that is what we hope to do.”

The U.S. State Department said the Indo-Pacific is central to U.S. foreign policy.

“We prioritize the success of the negotiations with the agreements with the free-associated states as a regional foreign policy goal,” the department said.

The Marshalles’ frustration was evident in a letter sent by Foreign Minister Casten Nemra last month to the rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s oversight and investigation panel.

“The officials involved from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Interior have been reluctant to discuss an agenda for the talks and have tried to limit the discussion to their own limited proposals,” Nemra wrote. “The nuclear issue was clearly one of the reasons. All issues raised by the Marshall Islands were met with allegations that they did not have the authority to discuss the issues without any indication that they would seek it.”

Late. Paul said the U.S. approach needs to change.

“I believe the United States has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that it cleans this waste,” Paul said. “We want to make sure we get a better deal this time. As they say, the third time is a charm.”

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Lee reported from Washington.

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