March 1 marked the 69th anniversary of the Castle-Bravo nuclear test, during which the United States dropped a bomb on the Marshall Islands that was a thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. This was just one of 67 nuclear tests the United States detonated in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 — the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs per day.
This year, the anniversary of the Castle-Bravo test falls amid accelerating negotiations to renew a treaty called the Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Marshall Islands, as well as two other Freely Associated States: the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. These treaties provide financial assistance, free migration, and military defense to the island nations in exchange for allowing the US military to exercise strategic control over their waters and establish military bases on their islands.
In its relationship with the Freely Associated States, the United States holds itself out as a friend, protector of human rights, and defender of democracy. As such, the United States views these Compacts as crucial to countering China’s growing influence in the Pacific and suggests that these island nations need protection from China. But in light of the US legacy of human rights and environmental abuses in the Pacific, perhaps the more apt question is not who will protect the Compact nations from China, but rather, who will protect them from the United States?
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE, WHO NEEDS ENEMIES?
Nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands has led to horrific birth defects, heightened cancer rates, and islands that remain as radioactive as Chernobyl. US nuclear “clean-up” efforts involved collecting some of the radioactive debris, shipping in 130 tons of radioactive soil from Nevada without notifying the Marshallese government, and placing it all under a leaking concrete dome that could be at risk of greater leakage due to rising sea levels.
Unless it acknowledges and remedies some of the harm it has caused, the Compact nations will rightfully be reluctant to trust the United States and its promises.
The US military permanently displaced thousands of Marshallese people for its bases and operations, which continue to threaten the rights to food, water, and health of neighboring Marshallese communities. Yet, the US military considers itself under no legal obligation to meet environmental safety standards or clean up its toxic mess.
A self-proclaimed defender of democracy, the US government undermined independence movements in these countries, induced their economic and political dependence on the United States, and interfered with the plebiscites. It is unsurprising, against this historical backdrop, that the Compacts provided expansive power and minimal accountability for the United States.
The Compacts give the US military strategic control of over 2.5 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean and the ability to build bases and other military installations, such as those planned for Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. In exchange, the Freely Associated States receive financial incentives and visa-free migration to the United States — a key consideration as the Compact nations face increasingly dire climate change impacts.
One of the United States’ main selling points in these Compact renewal negotiations is the US military protection that the Compacts promise. The not-so-subtle suggestion underlying this “benefit” is that the United States will protect these countries from China. But if China does indeed pose a threat, why should these countries trust the United States to “protect” them?
China has significantly expanded its development assistance, investments, and diplomatic ties throughout the Pacific in recent years. However, the Freely Associated States have adopted differing approaches to their ties with China. For example, the Marshall Islands has strong ties with Taiwan, while Palau seeks to maintain strong diplomatic ties with both China and Taiwan. Meanwhile, the Federated States of Micronesia recently reaffirmed its ties with China after its outgoing president accused China of engaging in “political warfare.”
In a recent hearing, the Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Indo-Pacific stated that China is coercing the Freely Associated States “into sacrificing their sovereignty” and “becoming rubber stamps” for China’s demands. Regardless of the veracity of these claims, they serve primarily to distract from the United States’ proven track record of wanton disregard for the safety, security, and sovereignty of the Compact nations and their people. And unless the United States acknowledges and remedies some of the harm it has caused, the Compact nations will rightfully be reluctant to trust it — and its promises.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO BUILD TRUST
The Biden administration has taken steps to indicate that the United States values the Freely Associated States as allies. President Joe Biden appointed a special envoy to negotiate the Compact renewals on the United States’ behalf, announced new funding for Pacific island nations, and proposed a presidential visit to the region. However, the attention paid to the negotiations means little if it does not translate to concrete action.
The outcome of negotiations thus far indicates that the United States still has work to do. A preliminary funding agreement between the United States and the Marshall Islands provides $700 million in US financial contributions, some of which the Marshall Islands government can dedicate to nuclear victims’ compensation. While this is more than the United States has agreed to previously, it falls woefully short of the billions of dollars that the US government owes to Marshallese victims in Nuclear Claims Tribunal awards. The original Compact of Free Association, which went into effect in the Marshall Islands in 1986, established the Nuclear Claims Tribunal to adjudicate the full and final settlement of claims for personal injury and property damage arising from US nuclear testing. Payments on Tribunal Awards ceased in 2009, as the funding the United States provided proved inadequate to cover the claims awards.
The Compacts also lack enforceable legal standards and remedies. The Freely Associated States are rightfully distrustful of the United States. Meaningful, enforceable commitments to human rights and environmental protections would not only prevent future harm but would also build much-needed trust.
The United States can continue to baselessly declare itself a friend of Pacific nations in the face of a factual record that overwhelmingly indicates otherwise. But empty promises will no longer suffice if it hopes to secure lasting, resilient relationships with these key allies in an ever-increasingly important part of the world. The Biden administration should approach the Compact renewal negotiations with the aim of correcting past wrongs.