The United States and the Marshall Islands seek an economic assistance agreement this year

Joseph Yun, U.S. special envoy for the Compact of Free Association (COFA) negotiations, was in the Marshall Islands this week for the first in-person talks with the strategic Pacific island nation since December 2020. The next talks will take place in Washington end of July.

A joint statement said Yun and Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua hoped to sign a memorandum of understanding by September with “the goal of completing the Pact talks by late fall.” or at the beginning of winter.”

He added that both sides affirmed the importance of continuing US economic assistance beyond 2023, when it is due to expire.

The statement came as China underlined its ambitions on Friday by launching a third aircraft carrier. Only the United States, with 11 aircraft carriers, has more of these ships, although China is still refining its ability to integrate them into combat groups, something the United States has been doing for decades.

Yun and Kabua also discussed the legacy of US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, the statement said, an issue that had been a sticking point before Yun’s appointment in March.

The inhabitants of the island are still marked by the effects on health and the environment of the 67 tests carried out from 1946 to 1958, including that of “Castle Bravo” at Bikini Atoll in 1954 – the largest American bomb ever triggered.

Washington has long-standing special diplomatic relations with the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) which give it military access to a huge strategic swath of the Pacific.

But the three Pacific island nations have complained that assistance has not kept pace with US obligations. Yun is also responsible for negotiations on the renewal of the COFA agreements with the FSM and Palau, which expire in 2023 and 2024.

China has strengthened its economic, military and police ties with Pacific island nations, and made trade and tourism overtures to the Marshall Islands, Palau and FSM, which are hungry for foreign investment.

Beijing’s growing influence has been underscored by its security pact with the Solomon Islands this year, a move that has raised concerns in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Harrison Prelat, a regional expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said the launch of the aircraft carrier showed China’s ambitions to project its naval power, as well as its efforts to cement security ties in the Pacific, even if these have so far only had limited success.

“Many Pacific island countries are open to expanding economic cooperation with Beijing, but Beijing’s recent efforts may have been seen as too much, too soon,” he said.

“Countries in the region are probably more interested in taking turns attracting investment from China and the West than engaging in joining Beijing’s orbit.”

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