Gridlock Has Put U.S. Strategic Advantages in the Pacific at Risk

commentary

Feb 22, 2024

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palau's President Surangel Whipps Jr., Micronesia's President David Panuelo and Marshall Islands' President David Kabua at the State Department in Washington, D.C., photo by Sarah Silbiger/Pool/Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palau's President Surangel Whipps Jr., Micronesia's President David Panuelo and Marshall Islands' President David Kabua at the State Department in Washington, D.C., September 29, 2022

Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Pool/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Nikkei Asia on February 23, 2024.

The United States is on the verge of an enormous geostrategic blunder in the Indo-Pacific region.

Congress, because of partisan gridlock that is also impacting aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, has yet to pass funding promised last year under pacts with three North Pacific island nations: the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau.

The pacts, known as Compacts of Free Association (COFA), are unique agreements that enable the U.S. military to do virtually anything it wants in an area of the Pacific the size of the continental United States. At the same time, the pacts prohibit the three island nations from establishing defense relationships with any other country without Washington's express consent.

The COFAs were renewed last year for another 20 years, but unless the United States delivers soon on $7.1 billion in pledged funding, the Pacific states would in effect be free to make other arrangements—and would quickly feel under financial pressure to find a new benefactor.

The COFAs stand to provide key advantages for the U.S. military were it to ever get involved in a conflict with China in the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, or South China Sea, or with North Korea.

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Along with the nearby American territories of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, the COFAs stand to provide key advantages for the U.S. military were it to ever get involved in a conflict with China in the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, or South China Sea, or with North Korea.

The Marshall Islands, for example, hosts the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll. Micronesia has agreed to host a new U.S. base and Palau has welcomed Washington to add facilities too, with the construction of a high-frequency radar system already authorized.

These military advantages could now be in serious jeopardy. In a February 6 letter to the leadership of the U.S. Senate, leaders of the three Pacific nations said that renewed funding was essential for the COFAs to “endure.”

They highlighted intensifying pressure from Beijing that could affect their alignment if funding does not come through, noting that they have been on the receiving end of “undesirable opportunities for economic exploitation by competitive political actors.”

China's interest stems in part from the Marshall Islands and Palau being among the 12 remaining nations with diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Since 2019, Beijing has convinced the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and last month, Nauru, to switch sides. There is speculation Tuvalu could be the next to break ties with Taiwan after a new government is formed in the wake of last month's parliamentary election there.

The Marshall Islands and Palau are keenly aware of this dynamic and have raised it with U.S. congressional leaders.

“There have been 'carrot and stick' efforts from the PRC to shift our alliances—including discontinuing support of Taiwan,” President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands wrote last week, referring to the People's Republic of China.

Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. earlier wrote, “The PRC has already offered to 'fill every hotel room' in our tourism-based private sector—'and more if more are built'—and [provide] $20 million a year for two acres for a 'call center.'”

After previously facilitating tourism to Palau, China abruptly choked off the flow of visitors in 2017 due to Palau's apparent reluctance to abandon its Taiwan ties, delivering a heavy economic blow.

Efforts continue in Congress to push through funding for the COFAs but passage remains far from certain even though no member has expressed specific opposition. But given the island nations' economic needs, further dithering by Washington could leave them little choice but to deepen engagement with China.

Without the COFAs, the U.S. military would unilaterally relinquish exclusive access to a massive area of strategic airspace, sea, and land.

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To be sure, U.S. friends in the region, namely Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, may attempt to pick up the slack, but even collectively, they would struggle to match Beijing's ability to quickly muster large sums and build much-needed infrastructure projects.

Without the COFAs, the U.S. military would unilaterally relinquish exclusive access to a massive area of strategic airspace, sea, and land that is “tantamount to a power projection superhighway” as RAND colleagues and I put it in a 2019 report.

This would be a terrible mistake at a time Washington is in need of more support for its struggle with China in the Indo-Pacific region, not less, and would weaken U.S. credibility for no good reason. This should not be a difficult call to make.


Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at RAND and an adjunct professor in the practice of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. He formerly served as an intelligence adviser at the Pentagon.

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