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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Some fear that China could win from the United States’ dispute with the Marshall Islands

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – For decades, the tiny Marshall Islands have been a staunch ally of the United States. Its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has made it a key strategic outpost for the US military.

But that loyalty is being tested amid a dispute with Washington over the terms of its “Pact of Free Association” deal, which is expiring soon. The United States refuses to involve the Marshallese in claims for environmental and health damages caused by dozens of nuclear tests it carried out in the 1940s and 1950s, including a massive thermonuclear explosion on Bikini Atoll.

The dispute has some US lawmakers concerned that China is willing to step into the gap, adding to a fierce competition for geopolitical dominance between the two superpowers.

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

In turn, America’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 United States, moving by 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 US pact talks with the Marshall, 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 began – even as our international focus continues to shift to the Indo-Pacific,” they wrote.

Lawmakers said the delays were putting the United States in a weaker position and that “China is too ready to step in and provide the desperately needed infrastructure and investment in climate resilience that these long-time partners seek.”

China’s Foreign Ministry said the United States must shoulder its responsibility to restore the environmental damage it caused with its nuclear tests. He 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 seen as part of China.

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

China has poached Taiwan’s allies in the Pacific, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in 2019. This week alone, angry protesters in the Solomon Islands set buildings on fire and shops looted in riots that some have linked to China’s change.

James Matayoshi, mayor of Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, said he and hundreds of others have been displaced from his atoll since nuclear tests and want to see it revitalized. He said officials have been speaking with potential Asian investors after an earlier proposal by a Chinese-Marshallese businessman fell through.

“It would be a commercial transaction. We are not advocating war or the influence of any superpower, ”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 that a $ 150 million US deal agreed in the 1980s failed to address the 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 remained static for more than 20 years, the last time the pact was renegotiated. The United States maintains that the nuclear compensation was dealt with in a “complete and final agreement” and cannot be reopened.

Marshall Islands Senator David Paul, who is on the islands’ negotiating committee and also represents Kwajalein Atoll, which is home to a major US military base, said the persistence of high cancer rates and the displacement of people they are still big problems.

“Everyone knows that the negotiations at that time were neither fair nor equitable,” Paul said. “When you look at the total cost of property damage and ongoing health issues to date, it’s a drop in the bucket. It is an insult “.

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

A report to Congress last year from the US Department of Energy said the dome contains more than 100,000 cubic yards (76,000 cubic meters) of radioactively contaminated soil and debris, but the structure was not in immediate danger of failure. The report concluded that the contaminated groundwater flowing underneath the structure has no measurable impact on the environment.

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

“We know this is important, but there is a complete and final agreement, and both parties have agreed to it,” said a senior US official who was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue and spoke on condition of anonymity. “So that topic is simply not subject to 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 US State Department said the Indo-Pacific is central to US foreign policy.

“We are prioritizing success in the negotiations related to the Pacts with the Commonly Associated States as a regional foreign policy objective,” the department said.

The frustrations of the Marshallese were evident in a letter sent last month by Foreign Minister Casten Nemra to Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat from California who chairs the investigation and oversight panel of the House Committee on Natural Resources. .

“The State Department and Interior officials involved have been unwilling to discuss an agenda for the talks and tried to limit the discussion to their own limited proposals,” Nemra wrote. “The nuclear problem was clearly one of the reasons. All questions raised by the Marshall Islands were responded to with assertions that they had no authority to discuss the matters without any indication that they would seek it out. “

Senator Paul said the American approach must change.

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

___

Lee reported from Washington.

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