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China to Undermine US-Marshall Islands Alliance if US Fumbles Military Deal Renewal: Indo-Pacific Expert

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L), Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo, and Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine (R) hold a news conference after their meetings in Kolonia, Federated States of Micronesia, on Aug. 5, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

As the Marshall Islands is yet to renew its military contract with the United States, China’s communist regime is striving to undermine the bilateral relationship—and could succeed if the U.S. fails to properly handle its alliance with the Pacific country, according to Indo-Pacific expert Cleo Paskal.

Paskal, who is also an associate fellow of the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House, pointed out that at least 67 nuclear tests were carried out by the United States on the archipelago between 1946 and 1958.

According to experts in the field of radiation, the powerful tests that rocked the sparsely populated Marshall Islands were the rough equivalent of 1.7 Hiroshima-sized bombs being detonated per day for 12 years.

The Marshall Islands and its inhabitants have been ravaged by the fallout from the blasts for decades. Communities have been relocated, cancer rates have soared, and some islands remain uninhabitable. At one site on Runit Island, a deteriorating concrete dome leaks nuclear waste into the groundwater, causing potential environmental damage that the U.S. government is still working to assess.

The United States spends about $70 million annually in various forms on the Marshall Islands in exchange for exclusive access to lands and waterways for national security purposes, but Marshallese leaders and others say that isn’t nearly enough to help islanders recover from the devastating effects of nuclear radiation and other environmental damage. They say that local negotiators who struck earlier deals—including a $150-million settlement in 1986 in exchange for forfeiting rights to sue the U.S. government—didn’t realize that the aftereffects of the nuclear testing would persist for many more decades.

“The Marshalls have a moral case of 67 nuclear tests that were done in the Marshall Islands under U.S. administration that’s never been apologized for. So the political warfare leverage that malign influence can use around that is quite high,” Paskal told “China in Focus” on NTD, the sister media outlet of The Epoch Times.

“These relationships really need to be delicately, respectfully, diligently, and effectively managed, because they are being taken for granted at the moment. And there’s active political warfare on the part of China to try to render them inoperable,” she added.

Block free movement

Under the Compact of Free Association (COFA) established in the 1980s, the United States is obligated to provide economic aid to the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands in exchange for permission to operate defense bases there. These three Pacific nations are referred to as the Freely Associated States (FAS).

The agreement allows these states access to U.S. domestic economic programs, and the United States to maintain defense bases in these nations. The citizens of the FAS are also allowed to serve in the U.S. Army.

The United States has reportedly renewed its agreements with the FSM and Palau.

The failure to secure a deal with the Marshall islands could block the free movement of the United States in the region, according to Paskal.

“And there’s the potential for a real shift in the ability to rely on the Compact of Free Association to ensure U.S. freedom of movement across the region, which is what actually underpins a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Paskal.

It could also impact badly on trade routes in the region, according to the analyst.

“Once China has control over the trade routes … you can’t get your goods in and out, they control who you can trade with,” she said.

“There’s a reason why a free and open Indo-Pacific is important.”

Undermining Democracy

Paskal referred to a report by The Sunday Guardian on how Beijing bought over the Solomon Islands’ members of Parliament. The Solomon Islands suspended all naval visits for U.S. ships in 2022 after distancing itself from the United States and signing a security pact with China. Members of Parliament there also voted to amend the constitution to extend the government’s term and avoid an election.

Beijing is alleged to have offered up to $615,000 per MP to vote for the changeover, and documents show that $200,000 embassy payments were made to 39 pro-Beijing members of parliament—the amount required to amend the constitution.

“So in the case of Solomon Islands, Chinese money has been used to buy off 39 out of the 50 members of Parliament, which was enough to change the constitution to delay elections,” she said.

In her opinion, the ultimate goal of China’s communist regime is to destroy democracy in the region.

“The goal is to create vassal states, and you don’t have functioning democracies as vassal states,” she said.

“China and its proxies are getting away with it, and so China can turn to the next country and say to that proto-authoritarian leader, ‘Look, we got rid of the opposition on the Solomons—we can do that for you too. Just give us what we want in terms of access to your country from a security, and fishing, and other resources capacity,” Paskal said.

Ken Silva, Aldgra Fredly and Rebecca Zhu contributed to this report.