By John Grady

The Freely Associated States lying between Hawaii and the Philippines are crucial to the United States remaining a Pacific power, the special envoy to these three island nations said Friday.

To China, the Republics of the Marshall Islands and Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia “are the Second Island chain” in defining its historic territorial claims across the Pacific, Joseph Yun said. “Anyone with ambitions wants to control waterways.”

The islands, with a combined population of about 100,000 people, were vitally important to the United States defeating Japan in World War II. They U.S also used them after the war for nuclear testing.

Yun, who served as ambassador to Malaysia and special envoy for nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea, is negotiating a new 20-year compact covering infrastructure and development to include protecting fisheries, education, health services and immigration with the three island nations.

“They have complete sovereignty,” Yun said at the Heritage Foundation forum. But the nations look to the United States for their security and oversee their relations with other nations, including China.

“We do have a challenge with China” aggressively peddling its influence through bribery, physical threats to local officials and espionage among the island nations, Yun said.

Several times during the discussion, he referenced a 13-page letter that outgoing Micronesian President Daniel Panuelo wrote in March, accusing charged Beijing of staging “political warfare” in his country and threatening his personal safety.

“To be clear: I have had direct threats against my personal safety from PRC [Peoples Republic of China] officials acting in an official capacity,” Panuelo said in the letter, published in part by The Diplomat and other news agencies.

Speaking at a Hudson Institute at the same time as Yun, Daniel Suidani, the ousted premier of a Solomon Island province, said China’s bribery of officials there led to his removal and threats against his life earlier this year. Beijing has also worked with the national government to push back elections from this year to 2024 to further erode democratic institutions and norms. He called that development “one of the saddest things I’ve heard” for democracy in the Solomons.

To gauge Beijing’s new reach, China and the Solomons, also entered a naval basing arrangement as part of a new security agreement. This follows China sending the Solomons, an archipelago east of Australia, more than $330 million in infrastructure aid after breaking ties with Taiwan.

Suidani said that to Solomon Islanders, it appears on a variety of fronts “the Chinese do things much faster than the U.S.”

Relations between the United States and the Solomons hit a new low last summer when the nation denied an American Coast Guard cutter access to refuel. Later, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare described it as a bureaucratic snafu.

At Heritage, Yun said, “China can say we can offer you more,” but “I don’t see many Marhallese living in … Shanghai. There is a depth to the cultural connection they have with the United States.” He said Washington is trying to answer complaints that it has neglected the Pacific Islands over the years. He pointed to the recent September summit meeting with President Joe Biden as an example of Washington’s engagement with their concerns over security in their exclusive economic zones and development.

“It’s more than about China. It’s more than about money,” he said, pointing out that as small as the three nations are, they have all been democracies for about 40 years since they choose sovereignty.

In the letter Yun cited, Panuelo said China’s goals in Micronesia and across the Pacific islands were to split them from traditional allies like the United States and Australia, break relations with Taiwan, and for the islands to accept Beijing’s naval presence, as it appears to be happening in the Solomon Islands.

He added in the letter: “At worst in the short-term, it means we sell our country and our sovereignty for temporary personal benefit. At worst in the long-term, it means we are, ourselves, active participants in allowing a possible war to occur in our region, and very likely our own islands and our neighbors on Guam and Hawaii, where we ourselves will be indirectly responsible for the Micronesian lives lost.”

As for dealing with the long-term radiation effects of nuclear weapons testing at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls and on the 40,000 residents of the Marshall Islands, Yun said, “this is part of the legacy that binds the two nations in a good way and not in a good way.”

Among the “lingering issues” are “trans-generational radiation effects” on a quarter of the population. Yun, who worked on settling Agent Orange claims in Vietnam, said the impact of radiation in the Marshalls is “on a different proportional magnitude.” Residents of Bikini Atoll have never been allowed to return, he added.

These are factors used in determining special compensation for the Marshall Islanders.

Yun said his work with the three nations on the new compact is nearly complete and then will go to Congress for final approval. The existing one expires at the end of September.

“This is a non-partisan issue” with bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. He expects lawmakers to pass the deal.