The South China Morning Post is reporting that “a deadline of strategic importance for Washington passed without a breakthrough on Saturday night” when the Compact of Free Association (COFA) between the United States and the Marshall Islands expired on September 30.
The COFA sets forth the terms of an agreement between the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the United States that grants the U.S. military access to RMI land, air and sea in rough exchange for limited U.S. financial support and freedom for Marshallese citizens to live, study, and work in the United States without visas.
The report claims that there has been no public announcement of the expiration, but quotes an outside expert: “Cleo Paskal, a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, said that ‘what has expired is just the financial and federal services component’ while the ‘defence right continues’. ”
Paskal added that the federal spending bill passed by Congress on Saturday, September 30 that funds the U.S. government until November 17 includes a provision to continue the limited U.S. federal programs and services that apply in the Marshall Islands, such as the U.S. Postal Service, but does not provide ongoing economic assistance for the nation.
A plus for China
The Chinese new source also quoted Daria Kurushina, Schwarzman fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank in New York. “China can step in to become a more reliable partner for the island nations,” she said, stressing that “the scales will tip in favor of Chinese assistance” if the issue of funding to the Marshall Islands is not resolved in a timely manner.”
Negotiations between the United States and the Marshall Islands have been going on for months as both parties raced against the clock to sort out a new COFA agreement before the deadline of September 30. The current compact agreement, from 2003, expired at that time.
The Marshall Islands is seeking recognition and compensation for extensive nuclear testing on the islands from 1946 to 1958, which have had lasting effects on the health of the Marshallese people. The United States has firmly replied that compensation has been adequate and U.S. legal obligations to RMI on its nuclear legacy have been fulfilled. All the freely associated states in the Pacific continue to be strategically important for the United States, particularly in light of increasing tensions with China.
Lessons for Puerto Rico
As Puerto Rico considers a relationship of free association with the United States, it may be instructive to see that these relationships do not offer permanent financial support even though U.S. military rights are ongoing. U.S. citizenship for citizens of the freely associated states is similarly not on the table.