Keep the Water Flowing in the Pacific—Or Else China Will

Keep the Water Flowing in the Pacific—Or Else China Will

Pacific nations desperately need increased critical water infrastructure as drought and rising sea levels wreak havoc on their populations’ livelihoods.


Water scarcity may seem like an oxymoron in Oceania, but access to drinking water remains challenging for many small island nations in the South Pacific region. This is partly due to the remoteness of the various archipelagos, atolls, and islands, as well as the underdeveloped water treatment infrastructure. The United States has more than one reason to offer humanitarian aid to this thirsty region in the Pacific. 

Although islands and atolls such as Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia may seem unimpressive, the United States has a significant strategic interest in maintaining regional development aid through the Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) at a time when China has become increasingly aggressive in expanding its regional sphere of influence by funding its own infrastructure and water development projects. Although many Americans are skeptical of foreign entanglements like the war in Ukraine, the COFAs allow the United States to deprive China of the islands by occupying the power vacuum in the region at a meager cost. The Senate should follow the House in renewing COFA with a greater emphasis on funding infrastructure projects that secure the island’s inhabitants and U.S. military assets. 


China has made engagement in the Pacific region a key priority as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to control key shipping lanes and island chains vital for protecting their largest coastal cities. China classifies eight countries in the region as “comprehensive strategic partners,” the highest rank within China’s diplomatic agencies. These small islands contain the few remaining countries in the world that recognize Taiwan, with China directing more than  $3.9 billion in aid to island nations in a bid to isolate the country further. The Solomon Islands recently awarded a contract to a Chinese state-owned firm to upgrade the port in the capital city of Honiara after inking a security pact with China in 2022.

The Solomon Islands, as well as other COFA nations, need more critical water infrastructure. Many towns in the Solomon Islands’s interior are forced to fetch water for homes and farms, while an ongoing drought means freshwater supplies for Micronesia will remain stretched thin. Farms in Micronesia rely on groundwater for crops. In a country where agriculture employs almost half its workforce, low groundwater supplies could result in farms being shut down and many people losing their jobs. As the sea level rises, other countries like Tuvalu must keep freshwater from being contaminated by seawater, alongside upgrading existing seawalls and other infrastructure to keep the rising tides at bay.

Infrastructure assistance through the COFA agreements will help make these island nations more resilient to rising sea levels and drought while further securing U.S. military assets in the region from environmental damage. “Ultimately, the COFA agreements serve as a backbone for the U.S. defense architecture in the Indo-Pacific. COFA allows the U.S. to sustain military preparedness and deny China a foothold in the Pacific,” said Andrew Harding, a Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. 

Preparedness is the primary objective of the Marshall Islands’ Roi-Namur atoll, which hosts a U.S. military ballistic missile testing site. Rogue waves damaged large portions of the atoll’s infrastructure earlier this year, resulting in the U.S. military pointing to a monthslong recovery, impacting military readiness in the region. The Marshall Islands also struggles with maintaining consistent freshwater supplies, with the government rationing gallons of water daily during severe droughts. COFA grants for further development of reverse osmosis systems that allow saltwater to be converted into safe drinking water will allow the Marshall Islands’ government to be less reliant on groundwater since their Laura groundwater reservoir has to be recharged with rain. Having a source of freshwater removed from the risks of drought will help the islands become more self-sufficient and require less direct support from the United States to import crucial water supplies. 

The previous COFA agreements provided the United States with crucial monitoring, resupply, and transportation hubs critical in supporting regional allies. Palau is set to host a new Air Force radar station that will allow the United States and its allies advanced warning of missile launches and tests by the Chinese military, adding to assets already in the region. While the Chinese army is pulling out all the stops to secure a permanent military outpost in the region, the United States may let funding for the COFA agreements lapse. Renewing the COFA agreements and assisting Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands in increasing their freshwater reserves and hardening physical infrastructure gives the United States a strategic advantage while being cheaper than constructing whole islands in the Pacific, as China is already doing. 

Since the first COFA was signed in 1986, the agreements have provided critical economic and infrastructure assistance to Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. If the United States chooses to forgo renewing these agreements, Pacific Island nations will find that China is more than willing to assist them in securing freshwater supplies and upgrading infrastructure. 

The current cost to renew the COFA agreements is less than one-tenth the cost of the United States’s assistance to Ukraine since 2022. Policymakers should renew the compacts to get the most strategic bang for their buck, assisting these islands and securing their future and our security.

Roy Mathews is a Writer for Young Voices. He is a graduate of Bates College and a 2023 Publius Fellow at The Claremont Institute. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and Law & Liberty. Follow him on X.

Editor's Note: Shortly after this article was published, the Senate passed the COFA renewal. It now awaits President Biden's signature.