After COFA Talks Stalled Under Trump, A 2023 Deadline Looms For Biden

The compacts with western Pacific nations take on new importance as China seeks to extend its influence in the area.

President Joe Biden has about a year and a half to renew key provisions of treaties that secure the U.S. military’s strategic control over the northwestern Pacific.

The international agreements, known as the Compacts of Free Association, give the U.S. the right to block other nations’ military activities over an area of the western Pacific comparable to the size of the 48 contiguous states.

That’s critical for U.S. national security interests as China extends its influence across the Pacific. The economic elements of the agreements with three separate countries are set to expire in 2023 and 2024.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration held several talks with the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. Due to the pandemic, in-person negotiations were cancelled and switched to Webex.

Last year, then-Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs Doug Domenech said that talks were on track to wrap up by the end of 2020 despite the pandemic.

That didn’t happen.

Now Hawaii U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele are urging President Joe Biden to appoint a White House special envoy or senior appointee to lead the renegotiation efforts, which involve coordinating across multiple agencies.

“As a member of Congress representing the Indo-Pacific, I’m deeply invested in the decisions our country makes in a century of both great opportunity and great peril in the Indo-Pacific,” Case said. “It’s critical that that negotiation continues apace and it is done as thoughtfully and carefully and expeditiously as possible.”

Gerald Zackios, the Washington, D.C. ambassador for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said appointing a senior official is particularly important to the Marshall Islands as well.

“We must have high-level representation from the U.S. like we have placed in the islands,” he said, referring to negotiators in the Marshall Islands.

Why Talks Stalled

The pandemic isn’t the only reason the renegotiations didn’t get completed last year, but it didn’t help, says Alex Gray, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

Gray served as the chief of staff of the National Security Council at the White House between 2019 and 2021. Before that, he was director of the Pacific Islands region at the National Security Council, the first such dedicated role.

“The in-person meetings you need to be successful in those negotiations were impossible for most of the year,” he said. Personal relationships are always an important part of diplomacy, he added, but that’s even more true in the Pacific.

Another challenge was coordinating federal agencies that had concerns and questions about their obligations under the compacts. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, worried about the cost of providing critical postal service to the Pacific islands.

That’s one reason Zackios from the Marshall Islands said appointing a high-level official is key to coordinate federal agencies.

By the end of 2020, Zackios said negotiators hadn’t yet received a U.S. proposal regarding federal programs and services and the Marshall Islands hadn’t yet responded to the U.S. position with its own official counter-proposal.

“We hadn’t received what we needed to receive to be fully engaged,” he said.

Last year, the U.S. took the position that the compacts should be renewed effectively as-is, without significant changes. It’s unclear what the Biden administration might do differently. Spokesmen for the Biden administration did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Zackios from the Republic of the Marshall Islands said the country’s negotiating team raised issues related to the U.S. nuclear legacy as well as Kwajelein, where the U.S. has a military base. The Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. dumped nuclear waste from Nevada in a concrete dome in Enewetak, adding to existing waste from U.S. nuclear testing in the islands, without informing the Marshall Islands.

Marshall Islanders are also concerned about the condition of the dome and reports that it has been leaking, Zackios said.

He said this month that Marshall Islands officials received a proposed federal programs and services agreement from the U.S. but official talks have yet to resume.

“Nothing has actually happened since the change of administration,” he said.

Optimism Ahead

Zackios hopes that changes quickly.

“2023 is just in front of us,” he said. “We are hoping we are still able to conclude something before 2023 comes around.”

Patrick Tellei, a member of the compact negotiating team for the Republic of Palau, said the team was recently reconstituted by newly elected President Surangel Whipps, Jr.

“We’ve just held an organizational meeting and have not had a chance to engage our U.S. counterparts. I am sure in due time, we will be doing just that,” Tellei wrote in an email.

Case said he is confident the Biden administration understands the importance of the issue, but wants to ensure that Congress is kept apprised of the negotiations and isn’t surprised by a sudden request to approve it.

In particular, he wants more federal funding for Hawaii to offset the costs of visa-free migration allowed under the compacts, including the cost of public school for Pacific Islander migrant children as well as U.S.-born children of migrants.

Case added Micronesian migrants are “fully contributing members of our country.”

“Many have become naturalized and of course their children born in the U.S. are now citizens so there are very, very deep ties,” he said.

Gray, the former Pacific Islands lead at the National Security Council, said he doesn’t think the challenges that emerged last year would prevent getting the compacts renewed, given their importance.

“The strategic and the moral obligation to get this done is so significant,” he said.

The U.S. has taken for granted its control over Pacific islands since the fall of the Soviet Union, he said, but now it’s an area of real competition.

“We took for granted that there would not be another great power competitor who had interest and capability to be a Pacific power,” Gray said. “The Chinese have both.”

Gray added he believes there’s lots of congressional support for renewal and is confident the Biden administration understands the issue’s importance.

“We did lose a significant amount of time because of COVID-19,” he said. “With the political will that I think exists, we’ll be able to move much more expeditiously.”


  • I remember having the discussion in this forum with some of the most ignorant fools who thought Trump was gonna negotiate the COFA, and I was right, he did not. thank GOD for Covid19, the RAT did not get away with it.. CHEEEERS!
  • The 3 Micronesian governments should ask for the continued funding of the Compact sector grants at an adjusted level, the continuation of the US domestic federal programs, including postal services, CAT Team services, increased in the funding of scholarships and our eligibility of the PELL grant, continued funding of CIP funds for our airports and roads, reinstatement of the school lunch program, and a lot more. This is a good timing for the 3 Micronesian governments to ask for all the above in light of the concerns about the influence of the Chinese in the Pacific region.
  • For the FAS to really get serious about being fully independent and have real meaningful development, they MUST have a completely new outlook on motivation and self-help.

    Stop accepting annual financial assistance from the USA. Rather, ask for increased contributions to the trust funds.

    Agree to stop free migration to the USA. Set time limits on length of stay in the USA and prohibit eligibility to work in the USA after graduation from college. Prohibit FAS citizens from enlisting in the US military.

    By taking these steps, the FAS leaders and citizens will try to learn to swim and catch fish in order to survive.

    Sometimes we need to think outside the box.
  • Clearly, RMI and FSM failed big time result of the JEMFAC leadership.. Unlike Palau, without a JEMFAC with the U.S, Palau keeps on progressing. I think the JEMFAC also needs to change to involve any US Government entity that deals with real economic development for these small countries. Jemfac must go! it failed. one more thing the FAS needs to shape up to meet the challenges.. start by prosecuting and jail times for all wrongdoers regardless of social status whatsoever.. To gain back the trust it must be earned by displaying Transparency and Accountability.
  • RMI WILL ALWAYS BE INCLUDED. And you guys from fsm and Palau will always rite OUR TAIL GOAT'S....
  • GOATs ..Greatest of All time...You guys are free loaders. Palau and FSM got COFA cuz of RMI. No forget that u fakas. Humble ur selfs when the 692 flag is waving. Facts!
  • Hey Reaper, this is not about you or me or them individually, you sound like the Republican trying to separate the ocean, these countries are connected by what the world is fighting over, ( the ocean space) not only the RMI or FAS but the whole pacific ocean. there is no freeloader here, every island nation in the region plays important role in securing a prosperous and safe future for their country. so far, the only country that is in deep shit is your country RMI. the flag has no meaning when the constitution does not matter with your leaders?
  • Come now, Reaper. You know the RMI is not the only Micronesian territory that is militarily strategic. In the old days, the jockeying for position and dominance was between the USA and the USSR. Now, the PRC is the challenger and both want the Pacific Ocean. And the FSM and Palau are equally important as the Marshall Islands. You know that. The US knows that. China knows that. Everybody knows that.

    So China is spending money in the FSM and Palau. And so is the USA. That is a sign.
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