A last-minute bipartisan effort to add key funding aimed at countering China in the Pacific has failed in the U.S. Senate even as a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan moved forward.
A renewal of the 20-year agreement known as the Compacts of Free Association or COFA was signed late last year, but $7 billion dollars to fund it is still struggling to find a path forward in the U.S. Congress.
Lawmakers tried to add funds for COFA to the aid package but no amendments to the legislation were considered prior to its passage early Tuesday morning.
Frustration about the delay in the passage of the funds is mounting in the three compact states: Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
“Every day it is not approved plays into the hands of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] 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 Palau’s president, Surangel Whipps Jr., in a letter obtained by VOA and sent to U.S. senators.
“Together our islands give the U.S. strategic control of the sea and air between Hawaii and Asia larger in area than the 48 contiguous United States – including shipping lanes that the PRC covets – effectively extending the U.S. border for military purposes to Asia,” Whipps added, underscoring what’s at stake for U.S. national security.
In a letter to U.S. senators and obtained by VOA, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine laid out the ways in which Beijing is pressuring her nation, which maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
“There have been ‘carrot and stick’ efforts from the PRC to shift our alliances – including discontinuing support of Taiwan, she wrote. “A proposal to develop one of our atoll municipalities – if it were granted autonomy from our national government – that I opposed generated an effort to topple my government in our parliament. Later, people from the PRC [People’s Republic of China] were convicted by a U.S. court of bribing proposal supporters in our parliament who voted against me.”
Congressional supporters of passing funding of the COFA agreement are taking heart in the fact that 24 senators – 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats – signed onto the proposed amendment to the security supplemental, which raised the measure’s profile, they say, in Congress.
“Our amendment to add the COFAs to the package was led by Senator (James) Risch and had broad bipartisan support in the Senate, including from the chairs and ranking members of all three committees of jurisdiction. This support demonstrates the growing awareness of Compacts’ importance and I’m working with my colleagues in Congress and the Biden administration to get this done,” said Senator Mazie Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, in a statement to VOA.
James Risch, a Republican senator from Idaho, told VOA that getting funding passed for COFA is critical.
“China is pushing for military bases, policing agreements and other coercive actions in the region. It is critical the U.S. blunt these efforts, and renewing these compacts is central to pushing back,” Risch said.
Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, echoed his commitment to finding a path forward.
“Amid rising tensions in the Pacific and China’s growing influence in the region, it is more important than ever for international peace and security to maintain U.S. strategic control and a close alliance with our Compact partners,” Manchin told VOA.
Supporters of passing COFA funding are already seeking to attach it to another piece of must-pass legislation – most likely the upcoming government spending bills that must be passed by March 1 and March 8.
“We know there’s wide support for COFA, but COFA has to compete with multiple legislative priorities on taxes, appropriations, CRs [continuing resolutions] and aid to Israel, which I support. COFA is vital to long-term U.S. national security strategy, so it must be passed into law ASAP,” said Congresswoman Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen, a Republican of American Samoa, in an email.
“COFA has the added benefit of extending our borders and putting our competitors on defense deep into the Indo-Pacific region.”
Last week, the U.S. State Department also indicated the issue is becoming a priority of the Biden administration.
“The Department appreciates the bipartisan support in Congress for the new agreements related to the Compacts of Free Association (COFA). We have been working closely with Congress, the White House and interagency partners on the legislation necessary to bring these agreements into force. We reiterate our call on Congress to pass compacts-related legislation as soon as possible.”