WELLINGTON, New Zealand – For decades, the small Marshall Islands have been a loyal American ally. Its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has made it an important strategic outpost for the US military.
But that loyalty is being tested in the middle of a dispute with Washington over the terms of its “Compact of Free Association” agreement, which is about to expire. The United States refuses to engage Marshallese in claiming environmental and health damage caused by dozens of nuclear tests it performed in the 1940s and 50s, including a huge thermonuclear explosion on the Bikini Atoll.
The dispute has some US lawmakers worried that China may be willing to step into the crime, which contributes to 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, much like territories. In the Marshall Islands, the United States has developed military, intelligence and aviation facilities in a region where China is particularly active.
In turn, American money and jobs have benefited the Marshall Islands economy. And many Marshallese have used their ability to live and work in the United States and moved in their 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 United States’ compact talks with Marshalls, Micronesia and Palau.
“It is unfortunate 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 put the United States in a weaker position, and “China is too ready to go in and provide the desperately needed investment in infrastructure and climate resilience sought by these long-term partners.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the United States should take its responsibility to restore the environmental damage it caused with its nuclear tests. It 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”, where Taiwan is seen as part of China.
“We welcome efforts to strengthen economic relations and improve the quality of life between the parties,” the ministry said in a statement.
China has steadily thwarted allies from Taiwan in the Pacific, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in 2019. Just this week, angry protesters in the Solomon Islands set fire to buildings and looted shops in riots that some have linked to the China change.
James Matayoshi, mayor of Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, said he and hundreds of others have remained on the run from their atoll since the nuclear tests and want to see it revived. He said officials had spoken to potential investors from Asia after a previous proposal from a Chinese-Marshallese businessman fell through.
“It would be a business deal. We are not advocating war or any superpower influence,” 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 US $ 150 million deal agreed upon in the 1980s was far from addressing the nuclear legacy. He said his deceased 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 child.
But the US position has remained static for more than 20 years, the last time the compact came up for renegotiation. The United States claims that nuclear power was treated in a “complete and final settlement” and can not be resumed.
Marshallese Senator David Paul – who is a member of the islands’ negotiating committee and also represents Kwajalein Atoll, which is home to a large US military base – said that continued high cancer rates and deportations of people remain major problems.
“Everyone knows that the negotiations at that time were not fair or just,” Paul said. “When you look at the total cost of property damage and the ongoing one health problem so far it is a drop in the bucket. It is an insult. “
Various estimates show the actual cost of the damage at about $ 3 billion, including for repairs to a massive nuclear waste facility known as the Cactus Dome, which environmentalists say is leaking toxic waste into the sea.
A report to Congress last year from the US Department of Energy said the dome contained over 100,000 cubic meters (76,000 cubic meters) of radioactively contaminated soil and debris, but the structure was not in immediate danger of failure. The report concluded that any contaminated groundwater flowing under the structure did not have a measurable impact on the environment.
As it did in previous compact negotiations, the United States has blocked discussions on the nuclear legacy, something that US officials acknowledge.
“We know it is important, but there is a complete and final settlement, and both sides agreed,” said a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue, speaking on condition that he remain anonymous. “So that question is simply not subject to resumption. 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 be able to do.”
The US State Department said that the Indo-Pacific region is central to US foreign policy.
“We prioritize the success of the negotiations related to the agreements with the freely associated states as a regional foreign policy goal,” the department said.
The Marshallese frustration was evident in a letter sent last month by Foreign Minister Casten Nemra to the rope. Katie Porter, a California Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s oversight and investigation panel.
“The officials of the State and Interior Ministries involved have been reluctant to discuss an agenda for the talks and have tried to limit the discussion to their own limited proposals,” Nemra wrote. “The nuclear issue was clearly one reason. All issues raised by the Marshall Islands were met with claims that they did not have the authority to discuss the issues without any indication that they would seek it.”
Then Paul said that the American strategy must change.
“I think the United States has a legal and moral obligation to make sure they clean up this mess,” 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.