US and Micronesia agree to renew strategic pact, US envoy says

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun arrives at a meeting with the media in Bangkok, Thailand

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States and Micronesia agreed on Monday to renew a key strategic pact, U.S. presidential envoy Joseph Yun said, adding that he hopes for similar progress with Palau, as the U.S. shores up support among Pacific island states to counter competition from China.

Yun told Reuters the Compact of Free Association agreement (COFA) with Micronesia would be signed on May 22 at a ceremony in Papua New Guinea, attended by U.S President Joe Biden and new Micronesian President Wesley Simina.

Yun said he expected to be in the Marshall Islands from Thursday until Sunday, but was "doubtful" its COFA agreement could be finalized at the moment.

Washington first reached the COFA accords with the three island states in the 1980s, under which it retains responsibility for their defense and provides economic assistance and gains exclusive access to huge strategic swaths of the Pacific in return.

Renewing the COFA agreements has become a key part of U.S. efforts to push back against China's bid to expand its influence in the Pacific.

Yun said he initialed the agreement with his Micronesian negotiating counterpart Leo Falcam and would formally sign it with him next week in Port Moresby on the sidelines of a second summit between the United States and Pacific island leaders.

"It's absolutely a done deal," he said, adding: "I am (now) going to go to Palau. Where I hope to make similar progress."

Biden will next week become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Pacific islands state of Papua New Guinea following a G7 summit in Japan, underscoring his investment in the Pacific region to counter China.

The old COFA provisions expire in 2023 for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia and in 2024 for Palau.

Yun give no reason for the holdup with the Marshall Islands, but parliamentary elections are expected there in November.

Washington has already signed memorandums of understanding on future assistance with the three COFA states. Yun said last month the "topline" agreements would provide them with a total of about $6.5 billion over 20 years.

Asked about the Marshall Islands, another senior U.S. official said "this is no longer about the amount of money but ... about how the money will be structured and how it will be spent and what issues it will cover.

"These are always politically very, very sensitive in each country," he said, adding, using the initials of the Republic of the Marshall Islands: "In the longer term, I'm very optimistic that we will get an agreement with RMI."

Last year, more than 100 arms-control, environmental and other activist groups urged the Biden administration to formally apologize to the Marshall Islands for the impact of massive U.S. nuclear testing there and to provide fair compensation.

Marshall Islanders are still plagued by health and environmental effects of the 67 U.S. nuclear bomb tests from 1946 to 1958, which included "Castle Bravo" at Bikini Atoll in 1954 - the largest U.S. bomb ever detonated.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Sharon Singleton and Stephen Coates)