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The Marshall Islands caught in a race for influence between the United States and China in the Pacific


MAJURO, Marshall Islands — Leaders of the Marshall Islands, a collection of 29 coral atolls midway between Hawaii and Australia, know exactly why the United States just agreed to a deal promising $700 million in new support over four years.

“It’s because of China. We are not naive,” Foreign Minister Marshal Kitlang Kabua said in an interview at a restaurant near the country’s parliament in the capital of Majuro. It offered a view of a vast lagoon dotted with rusting fishing boats hauling in tuna and coconut palms that line the thin circle of land that makes up the main Marshall Atoll.

Fishing and harvesting, however, are not enough to sustain the country’s population of around 80,000.

Over the past 40 years, the Marshall Islands has relied on financial assistance from its former colonizer, the United States, which conducted 67 nuclear tests on two Marshallese atolls in the 12 years following World War II.

The current 20-year-old treaty expires this year and talks over a new deal didn’t go particularly well last year. Then the Marshall government came to Washington’s attention when several senior officials refused to attend treaty negotiations alongside a high-level Pacific summit at the White House in September, unless the Biden administration accept a better deal.

The negotiation tactic worked: the administration sent high-level officials to the Marshall Islands for further negotiations, where a newer and much broader agreement was reached.

The case of the Marshall Islands is emblematic of increasingly fierce geopolitical competition in the Pacific as the United States and China jostle for influence.

The Biden administration has acknowledged that the Pacific Islands have been ‘short’ as the US focused its attention elsewhere. It is now rapidly trying to make up for lost time as China showers money and attention to numerous island nations with the aim of increasing its influence across the Pacific and reaping economic, diplomatic and military gains.

“We’re caught between two great powers like a girl two boys are fighting over,” said Peterson Jibas, a Marshall senator and member of the nation’s negotiating team.

This month, the Biden administration agreed to the outlines of a formal deal, pledging $700 million to the Marshall Islands National Trust Fund to help foster economic development, support nuclear victims and protect against climate change. It is also negotiating similar agreements with two other Micronesian countries: the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.

Joseph Yun, Biden’s special envoy in the negotiations, insisted in an interview with The Washington Post that a range of issues shaped his offer, including climate change and the Marshall Islands’ “consistent” support for America. But, he admitted: “It’s no secret – China is a factor.”

China’s growing reach is transforming a chain of Pacific islands

The new agreement gives Washington significant control over Marshall foreign policy, veto power over foreign military use of Marshall territory – which, along with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, covers a stretch of ocean over larger than the continental United States – and a long-term lease on the land used for a critical US military base.

In return, the United States provides financial support and allows Marshallese citizens to enter the United States without a visa.

The islands’ leaders have long complained that previous agreements do not adequately compensate them for damage caused by US nuclear tests here.

Just two years after the United States took control of the Marshall Islands from Imperial Japan in 1944, it began testing its new nuclear weapons here, detonating the equivalent of 7,000 Hiroshima bombs on the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak in 1958, causing rising cancer rates, miscarriages, and continued resentment that lingered long after the fallout wore off.

“They say communism is bad, but China didn’t drop 67 bombs on us,” said Jibas, who represents Bikini and remains suspicious of his country’s biggest financial contributor. “America is like a white rat with red eyes.”

Washington and Beijing understand the strategic importance of island nations like the Marshalls.

The United States only took control here after the deaths of thousands of Americans during its brutal World War II campaign through Micronesia. Although the United States declared at the time that it was liberating the Marshall Islands from Japanese colonizers, at the end of the war it never left. Instead, it took over its governance, using it as a “buffer” against competitors like China and a hotbed for military bases, local officials say.

A more pragmatic Xi ​​Jinping launches a global charm offensive for China

Even after the Micronesian countries gained independence in the late 20th century, Washington maintained control through agreements like the one with the Marshall Islands.

The power imbalance meant the Marshall Islands had already struggled to make its case, Jibas said. “America is like a big brother. What do you do when he slaps you?

Yet the frustration of people like Jibas coexists with a certain benevolence felt by others, born of the long presence of the United States in Micronesia. Many Marshallese regularly refer to America as “the continent”.

Americans “are nice people,” said Lillian Maika, who was sitting in a cozy home on the tiny island of Ebeye. Above her hung a photo of her son, who was killed while serving in South Korea with the US military. While she says “too many” Marshallese are brought into the military for lack of other opportunities, she still appreciates that America “gives us jobs, lots of money. We get what we get.” we need.

This familiarity with America goes hand in hand with a general distrust of China. Lucia Lomae, an elderly Marshallese woman who cradled her grandchild outside her home on the remote island of Enubirr, thought ‘China is no good’, although she said she didn’t know why.

However, persistent poverty and a growing Chinese presence mean that familiarity alone is increasingly insufficient.

Beijing proposed a sweeping Pacific-wide economic and security deal last year that would have led to increased trade and Chinese involvement in training regional police forces, among other things.

US-China economic ties continue to crumble, despite Biden-Xi meeting

While Pacific countries rejected the deal at a regional summit, several countries expressed interest in a modified version. China has also won important victories with several Pacific countries.

Kiribati, which lies immediately south of the Marshall Islands, severed ties with Taiwan in favor of China in 2019 and signed up to 10 agreements deepening relations during a visit by the Chinese foreign minister last May. .

The Solomon Islands meanwhile signed a controversial agreement allowing them to invite China to deploy armed police and military there, raising fears that China is building a military base in the country. Officials in the Solomon Islands have dismissed those concerns, but that hasn’t allayed Western fears.

At the same time, China has provided Kiribati and the Solomon Islands with significant aid and funding.

Hence the sudden American effort to give more attention — and more financial aid — to the region. At the September White House summit, Biden pledged an additional $810 million in aid for the wider Pacific.

“The security of America, quite frankly, and of the world depends on your security and the security of the Pacific Islands,” Biden said at the time.

But America’s fraught history also means Pacific officials treat those commitments with care. Despite her important victories, the Marshallese Minister of Foreign Affairs remains cautious.

“If we take you as a friend, we expect you to act as a friend. But in the United States, it’s a different matter. They are sneaky. They are smart,” Kabua said.

Now the Marshall Islands like to play their strongest game. In his last negotiations, “we were much more suspicious, we were less naive, we put our foot down and made our demands,” Kabua said. “We’ve found that’s how we operate with the United States, and we’ve found it to be effective.”

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