Hilda Heine, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, has warned relations with the U.S are “gradually being destroyed by party politics” as Congress delays approval of crucial funding for the Pacific nation.

U.S lawmakers have not yet passed funding packages agreed in 2023 with the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), in a move some argue is opening the door to China to build its influence in the Pacific region.

“Members of the Congress have to understand that the funds that the U.S has agreed to provide … did not come because of the generosity of the U.S government and its citizens, but rather because of hard negotiations between the parties,” Heine told the Guardian in emailed comments.

The support is part of the Compacts of Free Association (Cofa) agreements which the U.S has in place with the three nations in the north Pacific. Under Cofa, Washington provides visa-free residential and employment rights, economic assistance and other support to the nations, in return for exclusive military access to large and strategic areas of the Pacific.

Asked about the impact of the Cofa funding delay, Heine said: “At the moment [the U.S-Marshall Islands relationship] is gradually being destroyed by party politics in the US. Congress.”

Despite widespread bipartisan support, Cofa is struggling to achieve passage in a deeply divided Congress that is mired in gridlock over funding for Israel, Ukraine, border legislation and the U.S government’s own operations.

Cofa is seen by some in the Pacific as a test of Washington’s commitment to the region. In the Marshall Islands, the delay has affected funding for health, education and other services, while also inflaming concerns that the U.S doesn’t support it – something Pacific politicians are sensitive to.

The compacts were first completed in the 1980s. Palau and FSM agreed to renew the compacts in mid-2023, while the Marshall Islands struck a deal in October. Under the deal, the U.S agreed to provide the Marshall Islands with US$2.3bn over 20 years.

“Both parties had something to bring to the table, otherwise there would have been no negotiations and no new compact,” Heine said. The president added that at the United Nations, more often than not, Cofa nations have collectively voted with the U.S.

A spokesperson for the U.S department of interior, office of insular affairs – which administers the Cofa assistance – declined to comment.

The Cofa funding delay has raised questions about the impact it could have in a strategic region where Washington is competing with Beijing for influence and control.

Heine said the Cofa nations are “the tip of the spear of U.S defence in the Pacific and are its most reliable ally”.

In a letter sent to U.S House speaker Mike Johnson on 21 February, a group of 48 bipartisan representatives said failure to ratify the compacts would be “the most self-destructive gift the United States could give to [China].”

They said under Cofa, the US secures “vital defence rights in strategically critical areas of the Pacific” as well as basing rights, operational control, and the right to deny military access by a third nation to an area of the western Pacific as large as the continental U.S.

The U.S-run Ronald Reagan Ballistic missile defence test site is located in Kwajalein Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. The facility is described as a “premier … test range for the department of defence” and provides “tests of all missile classes and intercept scenarios as well as space operations”.

Heine, along with the leaders of Palau and FSM, have also written to Congress over the delay. In one letter, Palau’s president Surangel Whipps Jr reportedly warned that the delay played into the hands of China and politicians in Palau who wanted to accept Chinese economic inducements to shift diplomatic recognition of Taiwan to Beijing.

“Every day it is not approved plays into the hands of the [Chinese Communist party] and the leaders here,” Whipps wrote.

The Marshall Islands and Palau remain on a dwindling roster of twelve countries that have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In January, Nauru abruptly shifted its alliance from Taipei to Beijing after Taiwanese elections.

Cofa’s funding delay does not directly jeopardise the Marshall Islands’ commitment to diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Heine said, describing the relationship as “dynamic” and “one of mutual respect and understanding, rooted in our common belief that democracy is the key to peace and security within and outside our region.”

“The bedrock of our relationship is our shared commitment to democracy and the rule of law,” Heine said. “China has neither.”

Heine noted that U.S relations with the Marshall Islands go back over 200 years to nineteenth century whaling expeditions and Christian missionaries. She described a “person to person connection” that has endured the “trials and turbulence” of wars and 67 U.S nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 58.

In 2016, Heine made history as the first female president of an independent Pacific Island nation. She later served as a senator in the Nitijela, the Marshall Islands’ parliamentary body, before winning the presidency and a second non-consecutive term in January.

Since taking office, she has grappled with food and energy crises and destructive coastal inundation in at least two atolls. The Marshall Islands recently completed a national adaptation plan in preparation for worsening climate change.

After Marshallese experienced forced displacement resulting from U.S nuclear weapons testing, its citizens now face threats from sea level rise and other climate impacts.

The delay in Cofa funding comes as the Marshall Islands commemorate Nuclear Remembrance Day on 01 March, marking the 70th anniversary of the Castle Bravo thermonuclear test at Bikini Atoll in 1954. Radioactive fallout from the largest-ever US nuclear weapons detonation caused devastating widespread health impacts.

Heine said the needs of the four atolls, which have been recognised as most affected, “as well as the trauma and impacts from the American nuclear weapons testing program are far from being addressed”.

Heine said the US$700m included in the Cofa package to address the nuclear issue is “a step in the right direction” but “does not absolve the legacy of pain and suffering.”

Jack Niedenthal, a longtime resident of the Marshall Islands and consultant for the people of Bikini, said many people want to see an “acknowledgment and an apology” from the US.

Niedenthal said Cofa funding delays impact government services in the Marshall Islands and makes the U.S “appear as if they don’t care”.

“It is not a good look for the U.S in this region,” he said.