With Blinken in Pacific, Marshall Islands says US military access talks ‘stuck’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, U.S. January 26, 2022. Brendan Smialowski/Pool via REUTERS Reuters_tickers

This content was published on February 10, 2022 – 03:38

By David Brunnström and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Even as the top U.S. diplomat travels to the Pacific region to counter China’s growing power and influence, the ambassador to Washington from the tiny Marshall Islands said talks aimed at renewing agreements covering US military access stalled.

The envoy, Gerald Zackios, told Reuters there had been no discussion of renewing his free association agreement (COFA) with the United States since the end of the Trump administration in 2020, despite the priority that the Biden administration has attached to strengthening Indo-Pacific engagement.

Zackios said it was because Washington failed to appoint a negotiator empowered by President Joe Biden to discuss key issues beyond US economic aid, including compensation for the US nuclear test legacy. massive on the islands, the presence of American military bases and the mitigation of climate change. .

A senior Biden administration official told Reuters last week that he plans to launch a new Pacific Islands Initiative with allies and partners and finalize COFA negotiations with the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia. and Palau, but gave no time frame.

The pacts are due to expire in 2023 in the two former states and in 2024 in Palau.

“They’ve stalled,” Zackios said in reference to Pacific Republic negotiations with Washington. “In the case of the Marshall Islands, I would use that word.”

“I think those negotiations are stalled until we have a presidentially appointed special envoy who has the authority to discuss key issues that are important to the Marshall Islands.”

Katie Porter, a Democratic representative who has addressed the Pacific Islands issue in the US Congress, wrote to Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell in September asking for the appointment of a full-time presidential representative to handle the COFA negotiations.

A spokeswoman for Porter, chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Natural Resources Committee, said she has not yet received an official response.

The White House and State Department did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is in Australia this week for a Quad Group meeting with Japan, India and Australia on Friday, which is expected to include discussions on the Pacific Islands.

On Saturday, he is due to travel to Fiji, where he will seek to reassure Pacific island leaders that Washington and its allies are committed to tackling climate change and providing COVID safety and vaccines as China steps up his help and influence.

The United States conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958, and the islanders are still tormented by the resulting health and environmental effects.

The tests included the “Castle Bravo” on Bikini Atoll in 1954 – the largest US bomb ever tested and 1,000 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.

In recent years, Beijing has strengthened its military and police ties with Pacific island nations, while providing loans and infrastructure.

Campbell last month warned of a “strategic surprise” in the Pacific – apparently referring to possible Chinese ambitions to establish bases in the Pacific islands.

He said the United States had not done enough to help the region and there was very little time, working with partners like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and powerhouse France. of the Pacific, “to step up our game at all levels”.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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