A day after a US$95 billion foreign aid package left out economic help promised for the Indo-Pacific as the U.S tries to blunt China’s sway there, a senior official on Wednesday said the Biden administration stood committed to its partnerships in the strategically vital region.

“At the State Department, the White House, we continue to advocate for the authorisation and appropriation of funds. We feel it’s critically important to continue to work in close concert and in support of the freely associated states”, said Camille Dawson, a deputy assistant secretary at the US State Department, referring to the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

Dawson made the remarks in response to a question posed by the Post during a press briefing on the second anniversary of the unveiling of U.S President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.

That strategy arguably descends from the Compact of Free Association (Cofa), a pact that for decades has steered US ties with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

Amid growing fears of what some have called Beijing’s coercive influence campaign in the Indo-Pacific region, the agreement is seen as indispensable to Washington’s efforts to maintain its presence in the region, a place where U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken once said “our planet’s future will be written”.

The Cofa pact, first signed in 1986, grants the U.S military access to the land, air and sea of the three Pacific island nations in exchange for financial aid and a legal basis for their citizens to live, work and go to school in the states.

The Cofa programmes for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia lapsed on 30 September, while Palau’s is set to end this September.

New deals were negotiated and renewed last year, and Biden has pledged to the three countries US$7.1 billion over 20 years.

Bipartisan support for the new terms had appeared strong, but the promised funds still await congressional approval. For months, American lawmakers have bickered over federal spending.

In a letter to various Senate leaders dated 06 February, the three said their countries effectively expanded American defences across an area “larger than the 48 contiguous United States, stretching from west of Hawaii to the Philippines and Indonesia”.

Washington has based missiles and early-warning radar systems in Palau, the letter continued. It invoked a description by former U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey of one facility on the Marshall Islands as the world’s premier range for intercontinental ballistic missile testing and military space operations.

Furthermore, the Cofa pact made it possible for the U.S to conduct military exercises in Micronesia, the letter added.

While the Pacific leaders called the funding delay understandable, they said “it has generated uncertainty among our peoples”.

“As much [as] they identify with and appreciate the United States, which formerly governed our islands, this has resulted in undesirable opportunities for economic exploitation by competitive political actors active in the Pacific”, they said of public unease and hinting at Beijing’s lobbying in the region.

The economies of the three island nations heavily depend on American subsidies, which account for roughly 40 percent of Micronesia’s annual revenue. For the Marshall Islands, U.S funding makes up about 70 percent of its GDP.

Palau has struggled economically since 2018, when China stopped sending its tourists over the country’s recognition of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as part of China to be reunited by force if necessary. The coronavirus pandemic also exacted a toll.

Most countries, including the U.S, do not recognise Taiwan as an independent state, but Washington is opposed to any attempt to take the self-governed island by force and is committed to supplying it with weapons.

“Palau is stuck. If the funding isn’t approved and quickly, Palau may have to make cuts, including to pensions, as well as borrow, leaving it even more vulnerable to internal instability and outside influence,” wrote Cleo Paskal of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington think tank, in a recent op-ed.

The U.S was on the “brink of a making a massive strategic blunder if it fails to continue funding a little-known but critically important agreement”, added Charles Edel and Kathryn Paik of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank, in a separate write-up last month.

Steve Marshall of U.S Pacific Forces in Hawaii portrayed the situation confronting the three nations as a “slow motion train wreck happening in the western Pacific” in a post last week on social media platform LinkedIn.

Calling the delay a “self-inflicted wound” allowed by Congress, Marshall said a failure to fund Cofa would “result in crippling our ability to project power, defend allies, and protect the homeland, as well as betray a group of people we have long considered part of our family”.