Some fear that China could gain from the US spat with the Marshall Islands
Wellington For decades, the Small Marshall Islands have been a staunch ally of America. Its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean made it a key strategic location for the US Army.
But that loyalty is being tested amid a row with Washington over the terms of the “Pact of Free Association,” which expires soon. The United States refuses to engage the Marshall Islands in environmental and health damage claims from dozens of nuclear tests it conducted in the 1940s and 1950s, including a massive thermonuclear explosion in the Bikini Atoll.
The dispute has alarmed some US lawmakers that China might be willing to step into the breach, intensifying the competition for geopolitical hegemony between the two superpowers.
Since World War II, the United States has treated the Marshall Islands, along with Micronesia and Palau, like territory. In the Marshall Islands, the United States has developed military, intelligence and space facilities in a region where China is particularly active.
In return, the economy of the Marshall Islands benefited from American money and jobs. Many Marshall Islanders have taken advantage of their ability to live and work in the United States, moving by the thousands to Arkansas, Hawaii and Oklahoma.
But this month, 10 House Democrats and Republicans wrote to President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, about US talks with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.
“Sadly, these negotiations do not appear to be a priority – there have been no formal meetings since the inception of this administration – even as 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 fully prepared to step in and provide much-needed infrastructure and climate resilience investments that these old partners are seeking.”
China’s Foreign Ministry said the United States should take responsibility for restoring the environmental damage it caused through its nuclear tests. She said China is ready to deal with the Marshall Islands and other Pacific island countries on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation under the “one-China principle”, in which Taiwan is seen as part of China.
“We welcome the efforts made to strengthen economic relations and improve the quality of life between the two sides,” the ministry said in a statement.
China has steadily robbed its allies from Taiwan in the Pacific, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in 2019. Just this week, angry protesters in the Solomon Islands set buildings on fire and looted shops in unrest that some have linked to China’s switch.
James Matayushi, mayor of Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, said he and hundreds of others have been displaced from their atolls since the nuclear tests and want to see them revived. He said officials were in talks with potential investors from Asia, after an earlier proposal by a Chinese businessman from the Marshall Islands failed.
It will be a business deal. “We do not advocate war or any influence of the great power,” Mataeushi said. “But we want to be able to live in our own backyard, and enjoy life here.”
Like many others in the Marshall Islands, Mataeushi believes that a $150 million US settlement agreed in the 1980s fell short of a nuclear legacy. He said his late 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 US position has held firm for more than 20 years, the last time the deal was renegotiated. The US maintains that the nuclear compensation was dealt with in a “full and final settlement” and cannot be reopened.
Marshall’s Senator David Paul – who is a member of the islands negotiating committee and also represents Kwajalein Atoll, which houses a major US military base – said persistently high rates of cancer and the displacement of people remain a major problem.
“Everyone knows that the negotiations at the time were not fair or just,” Paul said. “When you look at the total cost of property damage and ongoing health issues thus far, it is a drop in the ocean. It is an insult.”
Various estimates put the true cost of the damage at $3 billion, including repairs to a massive nuclear waste facility known as Cactus Dome that environmentalists say leaks toxic waste into the ocean.
A report to Congress last year from the US Department of Energy said the dome contained more than 100,000 cubic yards (76,000 m) of radioactive soil and debris, but the structure was not in immediate danger of failure. The report concluded that any polluted groundwater flowing under the structure does not have a significant impact on the environment.
As it did in previous agreement negotiations, the United States has stymied discussions about nuclear legacy, something U.S. officials acknowledge.
“We know this is important, but there is a full and final settlement, and both sides have agreed to it,” said a senior US official who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. So, this case is not subject to reopening. But we remain fully prepared to work with (Marshall) on the broader issues that matter to us and that is what we hope to do.”
The US State Department has said that the Indo-Pacific region is the focus of US foreign policy.
“We give priority to achieving success in negotiations related to agreements with freely associated countries as an objective of regional foreign policy,” the ministry said.
The Marshall Islands’ frustration was evident in a letter sent last month by Secretary of State Kasten Nimra to Representative Katie Porter, a California Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s Oversight and Investigation Committee.
“Relevant Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Interior officials were not prepared to discuss an agenda for the talks and tried to limit the discussion to their limited proposals,” Nimra wrote. Obviously, the nuclear issue was one of the reasons. All the issues raised by the Marshall Islands were met with assurances that they did not have the authority to discuss matters without any indication that they would ask.”
Senator Paul said the US approach needed to change.
“I think the United States has a legal and moral obligation to make sure that they remove this debris,” Paul said. “We want to make sure we get a better deal this time around. As they say, the third time is a charm.”
She reported to me from Washington.
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