US House Republicans add Pacific nations deals to bill ‘countering Communist China’

House Republicans added the Compacts of Free Association (Cofa) to their newly prepared ‘countering Communist China’ bill amid a months-long delay in approving promised funds for three strategically vital US-allied Pacific island nations.

A congressional budget impasse has hindered funding for the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau, but that could change if the draft bill by the Republican study committee, a group of more than 150 conservative lawmakers, were to pass.

The legislation was earlier expected to be introduced in the House on Thursday. But the session was adjourned until Friday after the lawmakers voted for a short-term funding measure to avert a partial US government shutdown.

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First signed in the 1980s with the three island nations, the Cofa agreements provide Washington exclusive military access to strategic swathes of the western Pacific in exchange for economic help.

Cleo Paskal, an Indo-Pacific expert, described the inclusion as an “encouraging sign that more members of Congress realise that this needs to be passed as soon as possible, whatever legislative cycle available”.

This particular bill “may or may not succeed in its current form, but just being included increases the visibility of the compacts and the chances that the compacts will be passed sooner rather than later”, she added.

In the face of China’s deepening ties in the region, US President Joe Biden last year pledged US$7.1 billion over 20 years to the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau – about US$120 million a year.

However, Republicans had been asking to find that money from somewhere else in the federal budget. Earlier this month, the Senate omitted Cofa funding from its US$95 billion foreign aid package for Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine.

US still seeks delayed Pacific funds amid China push in region: senior diplomat

Last week, 28 Republican and 20 Democratic lawmakers wrote to House Speaker Mike Johnson urging him to include the Cofa pacts in the next available legislative cycle.

“They are watching to see if we will follow through on our commitments,” the letter stated, alluding to Beijing.

“Should we fail”, it added, China would “further exploit that vacuum with further intervention and disruption rather than open and lawful competition”.

The developments follow stern warnings to Washington delivered by regional leaders anxious about what a lack of funding could mean.

Republican congressman Kevin Hern of Oklahoma has sponsored the House bill on ‘countering Communist China’. Photo: EPA-EFE

“Every day it is not approved plays into the hands of the CCP and the leaders here (some of whom have done ‘business’ with the PRC) who want to accept its seemingly attractive economic offers – at the cost of shifting alliances, beginning with sacrificing Taiwan,” wrote Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jnr in a letter dated February 9.

Beijing sees Taiwan as part of China to be reunited by force if necessary.

Most countries, including the US, do not recognise Taiwan as an independent state, but Washington is opposed to any attempt to take the self-governed island by force and is committed to supplying it with weapons.

A joint letter from the presidents of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau to US senators dated February 6 argued that their countries effectively expanded American defences across an area “larger than the 48 contiguous United States, stretching from west of Hawaii to the Philippines and Indonesia”.

‘What’s next’ as China’s Pacific island diplomatic wins mount?

The issue was also raised during an annual meeting last week between US Pacific island governors and the US deputy secretary of state, Kurt Campbell.

Other than finding a path to pass the Cofa pacts, the draft bill proposes to curb trade with China in sectors critical to national security, along with more stringent investment restrictions.

Republican congressman Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, who chairs the study committee, has described the legislation as the “the strongest legislation against the CCP ever introduced to Congress and for good reason”.

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