Some fear China could win from US spat with Marshall Islands

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

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But that loyalty is being tested amid a dispute with Washington over the terms of its “compact of free association” agreement, which expires soon. The US is refusing to include the Marshallese over claims of environmental and health damage caused by dozens of nuclear tests conducted in the 1940s and 50s, including a massive thermonuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll.

The controversy has worried some US lawmakers that China may be ready to step into the breach, adding to a fierce competition for geopolitical dominance between the two superpowers.


Since World War II, the US has treated Micronesia and Palau as well as the Marshall Islands, largely like territories. On the Marshall Islands, the US has developed military, intelligence and aerospace facilities in an area where China is particularly active.

In turn, American wealth and jobs have benefited the economy of the Marshall Islands. And many marshals have taken advantage of their ability to live and work in the US, with thousands moving to Arkansas, Hawaii and Oklahoma.

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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 US compact talks with Marshall, Micronesia and Palau.

He wrote, “It is sad that these negotiations are not seen as a priority – there have been no formal meetings since the start of this administration – even as our international focus shifted to the Indo-Pacific.” Happening,” he wrote.

Lawmakers said the delay was putting the US in a vulnerable position, and that “China stands ready to step in and provide the much-needed infrastructure and climate resilience investments sought by these longtime partners.”

China’s foreign ministry said the US must face its responsibility to restore the environmental damage caused by its nuclear tests. It said China is ready 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 ties and improve the quality of life between the parties,” the ministry said in a statement.

China has consistently hunted down allies from Taiwan in the Pacific, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, in 2019. This week, angry protesters in Solomon set fire to buildings and looted shops in unrest, which some have linked to the China Switch.

James Matyoshi, the mayor of Rongelap Atoll on the Marshall Islands, said he and hundreds of others were displaced from his atoll since the nuclear test and wanted to see it revived. He said officials are talking with potential investors in Asia, after a previous proposal from a Chinese-martial businessman failed.

“It will be a business transaction. We do not advocate war or any superpower influence,” Matayoshi said. “But we want to be able to be in our backyard and enjoy life here.”

Like many others on the Marshall Islands, Matayoshi believes a $150 million US settlement in the 1980s did little to address the nuclear legacy. She said that her late mother was pregnant at the time of a major nuclear explosion and before giving birth to a stillborn child she was exposed to radiation which was equivalent to 25,000 X-rays.

But the US position has remained stagnant for more than 20 years, the last time the agreement came up for re-negotiation. The US says the nuclear compensation was a “complete and final settlement” and cannot be reopened.

Marshall’s 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 high cancer rates continue and the displacement of people is a huge issue.

“Everybody knows that the talks at that time were not fair or just,” Paul said. “When you look at the total cost of property damage and the ongoing health issues to date, it is a drop in the bucket. It’s an insult.”

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

A report from the US Department of Energy to Congress last year said the dome contained more than 100,000 cubic yards (76,000 cubic meters) of radioactively contaminated soil and debris, but there was no immediate risk of the structure failing. The report concluded that no contaminated groundwater flowing beneath the structure was affecting the environment.

As it did in earlier compact negotiations, the US has stalled discussions on the nuclear legacy, which US officials acknowledge.

“We know this is important, but there is a full and final agreement, and both sides agreed to it,” said a senior US official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and did not wish to be named. Spoke on condition of printing. “So, this issue is not subject to be reopened. But, we are still prepared to work with (Marshall) on broader issues that are important to us and that’s what we hope to do.”

The US State Department said that the Indo-Pacific is the center of US foreign policy.

“We are prioritizing success in negotiations relating to the Compact with independent allied states as a regional foreign policy …

Credit: / Marshall Islands

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