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Senate Committee Reinforces Compacts’ Importance to U.S. Military

On Tuesday, March 14, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on U.S. strategy in the Pacific Islands.  The hearing focused heavily on the U.S. Freely Associated States (FAS), three nations that recently renewed their Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with the United States:  Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The following witness testified before the Committee:

  • Daniel J. Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
  • Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, U.S. Department of Defense.
  • Michael Schiffer, Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Asia, U.S. Agency for International Development.

Committee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-MD) opened the hearing by recognizing that there are over a million and a half Americans of Pacific Island ancestry and over 1,000 citizens from the three freely associated states who serve in the United States Armed Forces. FAS citizens do not have U.S. citizenship.

“This puts people-to-people ties at the heart of our relationship to a part of the world that has been vital to the strategic interests of the United States,” explained the Chairman.

Following Chairman Cardin’s remarks, the highest-ranking Republican on the Committee, Sen.  James Risch (R-ID) reaffirmed that through the Compacts of Free Association, the U.S. partners with the Indo-Pacific nations “to advance economic prosperity, provide for the U.S. military, ensure training in law enforcement and judicial efforts, and maintain our critical security partnership.”

Leading off for the witnesses, State Assistance Secretary Kritenbrink similarly emphasized the importance of the COFA relationships from a national security perspective, pointing out that the agreements safeguard “our shared long-term defense and strategic interest in the region.”

Defense Assistant Secretary Ratner continued to build on this theme, noting that “[t]he compacts ensure that the United States can maintain a military presence in the freely associated states and they enable FAS’s citizens to serve in the US military. These agreements provide assured access for our operations and they prevent would-be adversaries from accessing sovereign FAS’s land, airspace and territorial waters. The bottom line is that the compacts helped secure a part of the Indo-Pacific that is larger than the continental United States.”

When the hearing opened up for questions by Senators, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) used her limited time to emphasize that the COFAs are “vital to national security.” Alluding to the Marshallese nuclear legacy as well as the U.S. delay in funding the agreements, she added:

“Over a thousand citizens from the Freely Associated States serve proudly in the United States military; they are more than just good neighbors in the Pacific. They serve alongside us study, innovate, and trade together with us and they should not be put in a position of doubt to doubt our commitment to continuing our decades-long partnership nor our willingness and ability to make right the wrongs of the past, including providing compensation for damages costs by past nuclear testing.”

As the hearing closed, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) asked the witnesses what kind of measures the U.S. is taking now that COFAs have been passed, to which Assistant Secretary Ratner responded by emphasizing the strategic importance of the Pacific Islands to the U.S. militarily.

He said, “There are a range of activities within the compact states. There is a paramount military posture in the Republic of Marshall Islands; they host the Ronald Reagan ballistic missile testing site at the U.S. Army Garrison in Kwajalein. This site is integral as it relates to space office operations and space situational awareness. Palau hosts the tactical radar multi-mission over the horizon radar, which gives the Department and U.S. military unprecedented situational awareness over a vast swath of the Pacific. So really important posture initiatives underway there.”

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