Taiwan is not the only country where a funding delay threatens to undermine U.S. strategy in the Pacific. As the United States seeks to outcompete China, part of the contest is playing out in the Pacific Islands. Winning that competition will require treating the Marshall Islands like the important partner that it is. Instead, U.S. economic support for the Marshall Islands is held up in Congress, and the bilateral relationship is severely strained by the unresolved legacy of 67 nuclear weapons that the United States detonated there during the Cold War.

The Marshall Islands, which used to be a U.S.-administered territory, has had a special relationship with Washington under a periodically renewed Compact of Free Association (COFA) since its independence in 1986. It is the only Pacific Island country that hosts a U.S. missile defense test range, which is located on Kwajalein Atoll, and its citizens enlist in the U.S. military at a higher per capita rate than any American state. The Marshall Islands contributes to U.S. national security every day — but many Marshallese feel that the United States does not give their country the recognition or respect it deserves.

March 1 was the 70th anniversary of Castle Bravo, the largest U.S. nuclear test, marked as a remembrance day in the Marshall Islands. Bravo was 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb nine years earlier. It dumped radiation over 7,000 square miles around Bikini Atoll, including inhabited islands that the United States had not evacuated, and in the following decades U.S. scientists studied the effects of radiation on the Marshallese people without their knowledge or consent.

Today, the Marshall Islands is fighting dual threats of climate change and nuclear contamination. Its government wants to be able to count on support from the United States, and above all, seeks a just resolution to the nuclear legacy. Whether Washington can rise to the occasion may be a litmus test of U.S. success or failure in the Pacific Islands as a whole. If the United States cannot foster positive relations with one of its close partners, its entire regional strategy will be cast into doubt.

Compact Funding Delayed

The COFA allows the U.S. military to use the Marshall Islands’ territories, waters, and airspace for defense purposes, and to prevent other countries from gaining military access. In exchange, the Marshall Islands receives U.S. economic assistance that is essential for funding healthcare, education, and other government services, and ensures that the strategic bilateral relationship remains mutually beneficial. But U.S. funding expires every 20 years and has to be renewed. Under the agreement signed in October, the Marshall Islands is to receive $2.3 billion over the next 20 years in economic assistance (not including nuclear compensation) — if Congress passes the funding.

Two other countries have Compacts of Free Association with Washington: the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, which are collectively known along with the Marshall Islands as the Freely Associated States. Despite bipartisan support for the COFAs, funding for all three countries has been held up in Congress for months because Republicans wanted an offset, and none could be agreed upon. Republicans added COFA funding last week to a bill aimed at countering China, but it remains to be seen whether it will pass.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Freely Associated States have urgently called on Congress to approve COFA funding, warning that China is seeking to undermine their alliances with the United States. Their concerns have mounted since COFA funding for the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia expired in September last year, to be replaced by stopgap measures in the continuing resolutions. (Palau’s funding expires in September this year.)

Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine said this week that her country’s relationship with the United States is “gradually being destroyed” by the funding delay. She said the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau are “the tip of the spear of U.S. defense in the Pacific” and its most reliable allies. Heine, who was reelected this year, has warned the United States about Chinese interference before. In 2018, her government was nearly toppled by a vote of no confidence that she believes was backed by Beijing. The vote was connected to an effort, funded by Chinese businesspeople, to establish an autonomous region exempt from the COFA and close to Kwajalein.

Delivering COFA funding is the central promise of the United States’ Pacific Partnership Strategy, announced in 2022, which is Washington’s first-ever strategy for the Pacific Islands. Approving this funding is the single most important action that the United States can take to show its commitment to the region. Conversely, if Congress fails to pass the funding for months — let alone a year — it will send a message to the region that Washington doesn’t keep its promises.

Meanwhile, the Marshall Islands and Palau maintain ties with Taiwan. But in the past five years, Taipei’s number of diplomatic partners in the Pacific Islands has halved, including Nauru’s switch to recognizing China in January. While Heine and Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr. support strong ties with Taiwan, other leaders may be swayed by China’s financial incentives, especially if there are massive budgetary shortfalls caused by the delay of COFA funding.

Nuclear Legacy Unresolved 

But even if COFA funding is renewed soon, the nuclear legacy is continuing to undermine the U.S.-Marshall Islands relationship, and China is exploiting that too. When I visited the country last year, I learned that Chinese representatives — who have an unofficial presence in the capital based out of their old embassy — often point to the nuclear legacy as evidence that the United States treats the Marshall Islands unfairly. And they’re right.

From 1946 to 1958, the United States inflicted on the Marshall Islands 59 percent of the megatonnage of all U.S. nuclear tests, or about 7,000 Hiroshimas. The United States has never apologized for any part of its nuclear program, including using the Marshallese people as human test subjects starting in the 1950s, when a prominent U.S. government scientist compared them to “mice.” In the following decades, the United States knowingly resettled Marshallese people on contaminated atolls while promising them safety. They had to re-evacuate in the 1970s and 1980s after ingesting high levels of radiation.

The nuclear legacy did not end when nuclear testing ended. It is an intergenerational problem. Multiple islands remain too radioactive to be safely inhabited, and communities are still displaced. Cancer is a leading cause of death, and the country has no oncology center. A massive concrete dome on Enewetak Atoll housing nuclear waste — including radioactive debris from a test site in Nevada that the United States secretly transported and buried there decades ago — is threatened by rising seas, potentially creating news risks to people and the environment. A 2020 Department of Energy report said that the marine environment around Enewetak is already so contaminated that leakage from Runit Dome would be undetectable.

While March 1 is a remembrance day in the Marshall Islands for victims and survivors of nuclear testing, the country isn’t only looking back. It’s looking forward. The Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission has a strategy for achieving nuclear justice, but it requires U.S. cooperation to be fully implemented.

It is deeply harmful to the bilateral relationship that the Marshall Islands has still not received fair compensation from the United States. It received $150 million in nuclear compensation under the COFA in 1986, which the U.S. government calls a “full and final” settlement. (U.S. trust funds for resettled communities later brought the figure to $600 million.) But when the Marshall Islands signed the COFA, it lacked access to crucial information declassified in 1994 about the human experiments and the range of Bravo’s fallout. In addition, the 1986 COFA established a Nuclear Claims Tribunal to adjudicate compensation claims, and the panel eventually determined that the actual damages amounted to $2.3 billion (about $3.4 billion in today’s dollars). This included hundreds of individual claims as well as claims for environmental damage and remediation to particular islands.

The Marshall Islands’ efforts to secure this full amount have been rebuffed by the U.S. government. In 2022 and 2023, U.S.-Marshall Islands negotiations over COFA funding stalled and broke down repeatedly because the Marshall Islands sought the additional nuclear compensation and the United States refused on the grounds that it considered the issue closed. The COFA allows the Marshall Islands to file a “changed circumstances petition” seeking additional compensation for loss or damage if such loss or damage was discovered after 1986, and the Marshall Islands submitted such a petition to the U.S. Congress in 2000. But the COFA also has an “espousal clause” saying that by signing it, the Marshall Islands would abandon all past, present, or future claims or litigation for nuclear compensation against the United States. (A U.N. report in 2012 noted that these provisions were in conflict.)  Eventually, the U.S. government proposed a $700 million trust fund, but it still falls far short of the amount the Nuclear Claims Tribunal — and successive Marshallese leaders — have been seeking.

A Double Disappointment 

While the Marshall Islands ultimately accepted a COFA agreement last October that did not include its desired amount for nuclear compensation, that decision should not be mistaken for satisfaction with the outcome. The Marshall Islands signed the agreement because it depends so much on COFA funding, and a deal was probably better than no deal. But the COFA agreement is a double disappointment: it lacks compensation for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal and the agreed-upon funding is entering its sixth month of delay.

U.S. refusal to pay more nuclear compensation to the Marshall Islands appears particularly unjust when one considers that American nuclear-affected communities have received more than $2.5 billion in compensation to date. Last year the U.S. government expanded nuclear compensation eligibility to Guam, which is more than 1,000 miles from Bikini, while telling the Marshallese there was no more money for them and refusing to recognize that more than four atolls in the Marshall Islands were affected by nuclear testing.

Is this how the United States should treat its partners? The Marshall Islands is crucial to U.S. national security, and will only become more important as tensions with China rise. The least the United States should do is clean up its own mess. As long as the nuclear legacy remains unaddressed, it will weaken the bilateral relationship — to China’s benefit.

IMAGE: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R) hosts a multilateral meeting with (L-R) the Presidents of Palau, Surangel Whipps Jr.; of Micronesia, David Panuelo; and the Marshall Islands, David Kabua, at the State Department in Washington, DC, September 29, 2022. (Photo by SARAH SILBIGER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)