US looks forward to ‘top-of-the-line’ agreement on aid to three Pacific island nations

By Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States hopes to reach an agreement on “top” numbers to support the three Pacific island nations by the end of the year, a State Department official told Reuters on Thursday, part of key negotiations to protect U.S. strategic interests in a region courted by China.

The Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Palau are sovereign states that agreed to the Treaty of Freedom of Association, or COFA, in the 1980s, under which the United States holds responsibility for protection and access. monopoly over large swaths of the Pacific Ocean.

The terms of the COFA are due to expire in 2023 for the Marshall Islands and the FSM, and in 2024 for Palau, and although the island states still have close ties to Washington, critics warn that failure to reach new terms of economic aid may prompt them to look to China for assistance. finance or increase trade and tourism.

Countries have complained that aid is not keeping up with US obligations but President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged at a summit in September to try to reach agreements by the end of the year. .

“We are not talking about signing the final text of the agreement by the end of the year,” a US State Department official told Reuters. “We are working towards reaching a good consensus on what the top supports should be, agreed upon by all parties.”

The official declined to say how much was being discussed but said Washington hoped to reach an agreement with all three countries by the end of or early next year.

A source familiar with the negotiations said the numbers could include hundreds of millions of dollars per year in assistance spread across the three COFA countries, though amounts can vary by year and by purpose.

This would be an increase from existing funding, although the strategic value of the islands due to China’s growing influence has increased significantly since the COFA was last revised almost two decades ago. century.

Marshall Islands are still affected by the health and environmental effects of 67 US nuclear bomb tests there between 1946 and 1958, including “Castle Bravo” at Bikini Atoll in 1954 – The largest American bomb ever detonated.

Although the State Department said Washington had reached a full and final resolution to the nuclear legacy under previous agreements, the official said Washington is “exploring many areas where the United States can provide broad support” to address ongoing needs.

Asked if Washington would consider the official apology the Marshall Islands had requested for the impact of the nuclear tests, the US official said there had been longstanding discussions on the matter in the past. goverment American.

“I think it’s something that we think about and discuss internally regularly,” the official said, without elaborating.

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