US Congress urged to approve Pacific Island pacts to counter Chinese influence

Congress must swiftly pass legislation to implement strategic pacts with Pacific Island nations and counter Chinese aggression towards the Philippines, US House representatives from Guam and Hawaii told the foreign affairs committee on Friday.

On Thursday night, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced a joint resolution to implement deals that President Joe Biden’s administration recently concluded with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

The agreements, collectively known as the Compacts of Free Association (Cofa), grant the US military access to the land, air and sea of the three countries in exchange for economic assistance and migration rights for those countries’ citizens for 20 years at a time. Though the deals began in the 1980s, they have become part of the US government’s strategy to counter China’s influence efforts in the Indo-Pacific.

The Marshall Islands and Palau are two of 13 countries that still recognise Taipei over Beijing, while Micronesia has maintained diplomatic ties with Beijing since 1989.

In 2022, Micronesia rejected a sweeping diplomatic, economic and security pact with Beijing. The US government has been stepping up its engagement with the islands in recent years, launching an annual US-Pacific Islands leaders summit last year and new embassies in Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

But it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. In September, the Marshall Islands let its Cofa agreement with the US expire, before it was finally concluded in October after months of haggling. The Solomon Islands skipped this year’s leaders summit, after signing a security part with Beijing last year.

“Unfortunately, our engagement [with the Pacific Islands has] waned over time and suffered from decades of insufficient attention, a situation that the pacing challenge of China, Pacific power Russia and others have been only too willing to exploit,” Representative Ed Case, Democrat of Hawaii and co-founder of the House Pacific Islands Caucus, said on Friday.

“We have a limited window of time in which to make a new impression, and again, prove ourselves to be steadfast partners.”

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The comments were made during “Member Day” for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, during which lawmakers who do not sit on the committee can highlight bills that they think should be prioritised.

Case also pushed Congress to bolster American diplomatic presence in the region by ensuring adequate resources are provided to new outposts, as well as passing legislation to codify the United States’ Pacific Partnerships Strategy – a first-of-its-kind plan established last year – and ensure that it is renewed every four years.
Also on Friday, Jim Moylan, Guam’s congressional delegate, pushed the House to pass a resolution calling for the US and Philippines to begin joint patrols in the South China Sea.
In the past two weeks, Beijing and Manila have clashed over an incident involving the countries’ military vessels at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

“As the representative of the island of Guam, I understand just how crucial it is for us to ensure our regional allies are confident that the United States will not abandon them or leave them [to] deal with the PRC alone,” Moylan said.

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