U.S. Influence in the Pacific Requires Congressional Action


U.S. Influence in the Pacific Requires Congressional Action

Long neglected by the United States, the Pacific region needs serious attention.

The Pacific Islands are strategically important to U.S. ambitions to balance China. Although President Biden’s decision to cancel his trip to Papua New Guinea was unfortunate, the State Department managed to ink two important agreements elsewhere in the region.

On May 22 and 23, State announced the signing of Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreements with the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. The pacts will govern U.S. relations with both countries for twenty years. Ambassador Joseph Yun, the lead U.S. negotiator, hopes to finalize negotiations with the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands were vital elements in the U.S. strategy to defeat Imperial Japan during World War II. Collectively known as the Freely Associated States (FAS), they remain critical to U.S. defense today. While the COFAs establish uniquely close relations between the parties in several respects, the key provisions are the exclusive military rights granted in return for economic assistance.

The COFAs grant Washington “full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters in or relating to” the FAS. The exclusive right to operate armed forces and bases throughout the FAS gives the United States an irreplaceable “strategic denial” right, granting it the ability to prevent foreign militaries from entering the FAS zone or using it as a base of operations.

These denial rights have grown in importance due to China’s military buildup and expanding footprint in the Western Pacific. Micronesia, the subregion that includes the FAS and Guam, is included in the Second Island Chain, making it critical for stationing U.S. military assets for any military contingency in the Indo-Pacific.

The Biden administration has proposed funding the COFAs at $7.1 billion for the next twenty years—approximately $300 million annually for all three countries. Thus, for less than one-tenth of the current assistance to Ukraine, the United States can ensure it maintains exclusive military access to these critical Pacific islands for at least two more decades.

Once negotiations with the Marshalls conclude, it will be up to Congress to amend all three COFAs and appropriate the funding. This can be done most expeditiously by following the Joint Resolution model, which Congress used last time it renewed the COFAs.

The Compact of Free Association Amendments Act of 2003 passed as a Joint Resolution, authorizing and appropriating $3.5 billion for Micronesia and the Marshalls in one legislative vehicle. Given the strategic imperative and broad consensus among conservatives and liberals in support of the COFAs, a similar Joint Resolution-based approach would offer the best chance at renewing the COFAs before they expire this September.

Another option is for a stand-alone bill, or bills, to pass through regular order in the House and Senate. Congressional leadership could task its respective chambers to fast-track these bills, although there is no guarantee they will complete this process before the current COFAs expire.

A third option for renewal would be to insert implementing text into a larger vehicle, such as the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or appropriations legislation. It has become the norm for these “must-pass” vehicles to incorporate other important priorities that don’t pass through regular order due to congressional dysfunction. Depending on the legislative vehicle, the policy provisions could pass without any funding attached, requiring separate appropriations and complicating the process.

Should the process drag out beyond the September 30 deadline, some COFAs will require interim funding. When assistance funding expired in 2009, the United States and Palau reached a bilateral agreement setting new levels of assistance. True to form, Congress failed to authorize and fund the deal until 2018. In the interim, the legislature provided partial funding in successive appropriations bills. Stopgap measures such as these undermine U.S. credibility in the eyes of potential regional partners.

For decades, U.S. foreign policy has largely neglected the Pacific Islands. Today, the stakes are much higher. Former Micronesian President David Panuelo recently warned about China’s increased “gray zone” and political warfare tactics to coerce his country into accepting Chinese bribes and aligning more closely with Beijing. Last year, China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, its first in the region, which allows for deploying Chinese military personnel on the islands in case of civil unrest.

The United States is a Pacific nation with vital interests and key allies across the region. Defending them requires America to be present across the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean. Congress has a once-every-two-decades opportunity to secure privileged access to three Pacific Island nations at a reasonable price tag, reaffirming America’s commitment to the region while denying China opportunities to expand its reach into the FAS.

Congress must not let the opportunity to re-balance the Pacific regional order slip away.

Andrew J. Harding, co-editor of “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China,” is a researcher at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

Image: Shutterstock.