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Jun 5, 2023 | In The News

In the next few months, Washington faces a test of its commitments in the Pacific: ratification of updated Compacts of Free Association with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. This will be no easy task since the Biden administration is asking the Congress to quickly pass over $7 billion in support for these three countries shortly after imposing new spending caps.

From a strategic perspective, these arrangements are a no brainer. But from a bureaucratic perspective, they are a heavy lift. And despite U.S. promises to “step up” engagement in the Pacific, Joe Biden’s recently cancelled visit to Papua New Guinea and meeting with Pacific Islands leaders highlights the challenges American leaders have in matching their resources with their rhetoric in the Pacific Islands.

In the last decade, the United States has enthusiastically adopted the concept of the Indo-Pacific. Many have interpreted this primarily as an effort to better incorporate India into the Asian region. The elevation of the Pacific Islands has heretofore attracted less attention, but it is no less important. Pacific Island countries are partners on a range of issues from the environment to public health to security. For this reason, both the Trump and Biden administrations increased emphasis on the Pacific Islands.

Yet the first real test of this commitment is coming in the next few months. The Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia have entered into Compacts of Free Association with the United States. These arrangements provide the United States with military access in exchange for U.S. security guarantees, economic assistance, and special access to government services.

The original Compacts were finalized in 1982 and then renegotiated in 2003. The current agreements with the Marshall Islands and Micronesia expire this year, while Palau is due to lapse next year. In March, the Biden administration announced that it would seek $7 billion over the next two decades  for economic assistance to the three compact states.

Progress in bilateral negotiations between the United States and Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia has been encouraging, but a great deal of work remains to be done with the Congress. As the deadline for ratification nears, the administration must muster congressional support. But it will be hard to convince Congress to appropriate over $7 billion to countries that few members have ever visited and many have not even heard of.

Some in Congress are already frustrated. Last year, Sens. Marco Rubio, Brian Schatz, Bill Hagerty, and Chris Coons sent a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken asserting that “more must be done to ensure that COFA negotiations successfully conclude before the agreements expire.” The bipartisan group praised the administration for describing the Compacts as “the bedrock of the U.S. role in the Pacific.” But they expressed unease that they had “yet to see actions that signal real progress on finalizing new agreements.”

Since that letter, the administration has made significant progress. However, the lack of specifics continues to frustrate Congress. House Foreign Affairs Indo-Pacific Subcommittee Chairwoman Young Kim recently held a hearing on the subject and warned , “I’m concerned that we have not received much information on the status of the negotiations, and going forward, I ask that the State Department regularly update our committee on your progress.” Chairwoman Kim has pushed for members to receive draft texts or briefings on the status of the negotiations to help familiarize members of Congress.

As negotiations with the Compact States enter the final stretch, the Biden administration needs to prioritize engagement with members of Congress. A speedy congressional approval process is now critical, since two of the Compacts end soon. A smooth approval process would have been easier if the administration had worked harder to get buy-in from a variety of committees and members early on.

Now, coming off of Biden’s missed opportunity with Pacific Islands leaders, the Compacts must be the administration’s top Indo-Pacific focus this summer. Yet, Biden’s cancelled trip should also serve as a reminder that the strategic logic of U.S. engagement cannot always overcome domestic constraints. The new spending caps that the administration and the Congress just agreed to will complicate this process.

Domestic spending is under greater pressure than ever, which will bring more scrutiny to billions being directed to foreign countries. Although this spending can be justified on national security grounds, there remains a great deal of skepticism among both the authorizing and appropriating committees in Congress. As a result, Biden officials must now step up their engagement not only in the Pacific but in Washington. There is no time to waste.


Washington Examiner

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