US to sign strategic pacts with two Pacific states, hopes for third in weeks

FILE PHOTO: A view of seaside in Koror

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will sign new strategic pacts with the Pacific island states of Palau and Micronesia early next week and hopes to do so with the Marshall islands in coming weeks, the U.S. presidential envoy negotiating the deals said.

Joseph Yun told Reuters the Palau agreement would be formally signed in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. in Papua New Guinea on Monday, while the Micronesia pact would be signed on Tuesday in Micronesia.

Yun initialed the agreements, part of U.S. efforts to shore up support among Pacific island states to counter competition from China, during visits to Micronesia and Palau in the past week. As anticipated, he was unable to conclude the deal with the Marshall Islands.

"We have made progress over my three-day visit to Marshall Islands and we hope to sign an agreement with the Marshall Islands in the coming weeks," he said.

Washington first reached what are known as Compact of Free Association (COFA) accords with the three island states in the 1980s, under which it retains responsibility for their defense and provides economic assistance while gaining exclusive access to huge strategic swathes of the Pacific in return.

Renewing them has become a key part of U.S. efforts to push back against China's bid to expand its influence in the Pacific. Chinese diplomats have been courting the region and China's construction and mining companies have expanded their business in many Pacific island nations.

U.S. President Joe Biden had been due to attend the signing ceremonies in Port Moresby, but on Tuesday called off what was to have been a brief stopover there due to the U.S. debt-ceiling crisis.

Blinken will take his place and also sign bilateral defense and maritime security agreements with PNG and meet with leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum. Biden's national security adviser said on Wednesday the president would arrange another summit of Pacific island leaders this year after the disappointment caused by his cancellation.

Yun said Micronesia preferred to formalize its agreement on home territory. Earlier he said both Palau and Micronesia would sign their COFAs in PNG.

The Marshall Islands' COFA is due to expire this year. Yun gave no reason for the hold-up in renewing that, but a parliamentary election is expected there in November.

Yun called the deals "strategically important."

"We've achieved two out of three," he said. "Compacts are very important for the United States. It defines the relationship between us and northern half of the Pacific."

Yun said last month "topline" agreements would provide the three COFA states with a total of about $6.5 billion over 20 years.

Last year, more than 100 arms-control, environmental and other activist groups urged the Biden administration to formally apologize to the Marshall Islands for the impact of massive U.S. nuclear testing there and to provide fair compensation.

Marshall Islanders are still plagued by health and environmental effects of the 67 U.S. nuclear bomb tests from 1946 to 1958, which included "Castle Bravo" at Bikini Atoll in 1954 - the largest U.S. bomb ever detonated.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Richard Chang)