New COFA Treaties to be Ratified Pending Congressional Approval

Asia The Pacific

In June 2023, US Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations Ambassador Joseph Yun announced that Congress will soon be receiving the new Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreements which will provide $7.1 billion in aid for the next twenty years to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and the Republic of Palau. The United States has already signed the new agreement with the Republic of Palau and the FSM while negotiations with the RMI are still underway. The new agreements are part of a larger US foreign policy strategy to address concerns over China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.

The new COFA treaties will be beneficial to the United States by, among other things, deepening defense cooperation in the region, and benefit COFA nations by providing access to safety net programs for COFA migrants living in the US as well as financial assistance to the island governments.

Another legislation under consideration is the Boosting Long-Term U.S. Engagement (BLUE) in the Pacific Act, which was reintroduced on July 12th, 2023, by Representatives Ed Case (D-HI), Ami Bera (D-CA), and Brad Sherman (D-CA). The BLUE Act will foster trade between the United States and nations in the Pacific region to increase investments in programs that will improve trade capacity. This legislation is intended to expand American diplomatic presence in RMI, FSM, the Republic of Palua, and Pacific Island nations as well as build on existing regional frameworks to deepen cooperation in development and security efforts.

The original Compact of Free Association treaties were signed by the United States with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia in 1986, and the Republic of Palau in 1994, solidifying the economic and military partnerships between the U.S. and these three Pacific Island nations. The COFA agreements grant the United States the exclusive right to operate its military on the islands and to request land for military purposes. The United States is also responsible for all international affairs, including defense. Most citizens of the associated island states also enjoy privileges such as being able to work in the United States and have access to domestic services such as USPS and Medicaid.

The new agreements aim to address barriers to access essential services such as Medicaid and insurance coverage for COFA migrants that result in high mortality rates. The barriers to healthcare are especially concerning for citizens of the RMI because of the health complications stemming from U.S.-conducted nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958. Disagreement over the U.S. nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands continues to be an obstacle for the new COFA agreements that are crucial for the Biden administration’s strategy to combat China’s influence in the Pacific. The Biden administration hopes that the new COFA agreements will steer the islands away from security agreements with China such as the one signed last year by the Solomon Islands.

While the new treaty is under congressional review, the Republic of the Marshall Islands has yet to reach an agreement with the U.S. government over its nuclear legacy. On July 13th 2023, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Jack Ading requested more funds from the United States before it would sign the new COFA agreement. The Republic of the Marshall Islands would utilize the requested additional funds to address the impact of over a decade of nuclear testing on the safety and health of the Marshall Islands and its residents as a condition of signing the agreement. The Marshallese continue to be challenged by the nuclear radiation that contaminates the water and land resulting in radiation related cancer and birth defects. Additionally, the Runit Dome, the concrete dome which contains over one hundred thousand cubic yards of nuclear waste, is experiencing increased leakage and rising sea levels which threaten to crack the dome open. The impact of the testing on the surrounding environment and citizens’ health is particularly clear in the Bikini and Rongelap atolls where displaced persons are still unable to safely return home.

With this in mind, the proposed COFA treaty represents a bold plan to address the long-standing socio-economic challenges of the Pacific Island nation, while increasing long-standing defensive and economic cooperation between the United States, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau.

Jordan Cheney is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington D.C.. She recently graduated from American University with a Bachelor's in Political Science specializing in comparative politics and a minor in Asia, Pacific, and Diaspora Studies.