Marshall Islands trip shows US-China fears

·2-min read

A US special envoy for the Pacific will lead a delegation to the Marshall Islands next week amid growing worries about China's efforts to expand its influence in the region.

Joseph Yun, a veteran diplomat appointed by President Joe Biden in March, told Reuters he and his team would be in the Marshall Islands from June 14-16.

The State Department said Yun would hold talks on the Compact of Free Association (COFA) that governs US economic assistance for the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), which is due to expire next year.

The United States has similar agreements with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Palau, which expire in 2023 and 2024 respectively, and Yun is also responsible for those negotiations.

"We welcome the opportunity for in-person meetings with the RMI negotiating team and look forward to productive talks," a State Department official said.

The Pacific islands have emerged as a key front in Washington's strategic competition with China, which has stepped up diplomatic efforts to woo countries in the region.

Biden and New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern aired shared concerns last week about China's bid to expand its influence in the Pacific and a senior US official said they discussed the need for in-person engagement with Pacific island leaders.

They also expressed concern about a recent security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands.

Last week, a virtual meeting of 10 Pacific foreign ministers hosted by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Fiji agreed to defer consideration of a proposed sweeping trade and security pact.

Samoa's leader said subsequently the pact needed to be discussed at a regional meeting before any decisions are made.

Talks to renew the US COFA agreements with the Marshall Islands, FSM and Palau began during the Trump administration but languished before Yun's appointment, raising concerns Washington could lose its battle for influence with Beijing.

Key issues for the Marshall Islands include remuneration for the legacy of massive US nuclear testing there, the presence of US military bases and climate-change mitigation.

Yun had already conducted meetings or virtual discussions with the leaders of the three countries, and held virtual talks with the negotiating team from FSM, the source said, but the Marshall Islands trip would mark the first in-person negotiations since they were largely stalled in December 2020.

The source said Wang's recent visit to the region had created a sense of urgency among US officials.

"It focused a lot more attention from people who weren't very involved," the source said.

The United States conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958 and islanders are still plagued by the health and environmental effects.

The tests included the 'Castle Bravo' at Bikini Atoll in 1954 - the largest US bomb ever tested and 1000 times more powerful than the one that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.

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