Yes, Oceania is Strategically Important: A Case Study on the Marshall Islands

Oceania, a region unknown to many, has an outsized importance to the United States, and it is time the US started paying closer attention. A closer look at the Marshall Islands reveals the region’s historic military importance, American responsibilities in the region, how climate change will increase those responsibilities, and that the region is ripe with geostrategic opportunities to counter Chinese influence.

Marshall Islands Background

Oceania is diverse. Oceania is comprised of fifteen nations spread over a continental-US-sized swath of the Pacific; her twenty-three million inhabitants, spread across thousands of islands, are far from homogenous and it would be foolish to lump them all together. Instead, it is possible to draw lessons from the Marshall Islands in order to understand American involvement, interests, and responsibilities in the region.

Global players have long viewed the Marshall Islands and its 30-plus atolls, settled almost perfectly between Hawaii and the Philippines, as strategic. They were named after the British navy captain who discovered them in 1788 and annexed by a newly independent Germany just over a century later. The Japanese claimed, held a mandate over, and used them as a POW camp during the island-hopping campaign in WWII. Among other island nations, the US claimed and administered the Marshall Islands as a trust after WWII, a status the islands held until 1986, when a Compact of Free Association created the independent Republic of the Marshall Islands. Today, the islands are a sovereign nation, but their defense is guaranteed and administered by the US, which has had significant military assets in the Marshall Islands since WWII ended.

US Responsibilities

Perspective matters when looking back at the ‘American Period’. From the Marshallese point of view, nothing synopsizes the period more than the 67 nuclear tests the US conducted on the northern atolls between 1946–1958 and their lingering environmental and health effects. Since 2003, the Marshallese have been calling for the US to release $2.3 billion in damages awarded to them by a UN nuclear claims tribunal. Those calls are usually prefaced with personal anecdotes about childhood memories of mushroom clouds, friends and family lost to radiation sickness or displacement, or how contaminated waters no longer provide the sustenance island life requires of them. To them, the compensation is about dereliction and accountability.

From the American vantage point, the US was a liberator — a protective occupier wary of neocolonialism. Regarding the tests, the US conducted them in the most remote places possible, on leased land, and took action to protect and move populations from the test sites and fallout areas when negative effects became evident.

To the US, their responsibility for the tests is already being met. To this day, families displaced by the tests receive quarterly welfare payments and Marshallese have access to visa-free travel to the US, an asset currently allowing more than 10,000 Marshallese to live and work in the US. Further, the US is the Marshall Islands’ biggest financial supporter, providing $65 million in food, development, and economic aid to the Marshall Islands — more than 85% of the nation’s total aid. As such, the US rebuts its responsibility to pay the UN tribunal payment given their ongoing support.

Interests and Opportunities?          

Beyond addressing the long-term impacts of nuclear testing, the Marshall Islands has another interest: combatting climate change. Rising sea levels pose an existential threat to low-elevation atolls like the Marshall Islands. Further issues include threats to fish populations, water sources, and increasingly strong cyclones. Needless to say, disaster preparedness and adaptation strategies are a dire need.

Analyzing American aid to the islands reveals a possible opportunity to meet the Marshallese’ interest in combatting climate change. Under the 2003 Free Association extension, $3.5 billion was promised in direct financial assistance over a twenty-year span. Last year, $11 million was allocated to education, $9.4 million to infrastructure, but only a paltry $244,000 for the disaster assistance emergency fund. The US should consider revising this balance in light of its contribution to anthropogenic climate change given small islands states’ recent calls for accountability. Doing so might help the Americans increase goodwill at an opportune time.

Climate change and recent events have actually increased American interests in the region over the last two years. First, North Korea’s unveiling its Hwasong-15’s capabilities to strike the continental US increased the utility of regional assets like the Reagan Missile Defense Test Site. The site, located on the Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein atoll, is from where US personnel lob ICBMs towards California to test the American missile defense systems. Although leased until 2066, the test site will be useless if it sinks.

Second, the US wants to combat Chinese influence in the region. The Belt and Road Initiative has reached the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and Palau, which also has Free Association Compact with the US that is about to expire. Compelling Chinese diplomacy and promises of big investments has convinced both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to sever ties with Taiwan, leaving Taipei with just 15 friends officially recognizing them.

Coincidentally, the Marshall Islands happens to be one of the few remaining players recognizing Taipei, making it a likely target of Chinese diplomacy as Beijing looks to cement its influence in the region. The timing for the US could not be worse, as its Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands is set to expire in 2023. This will undoubtedly increase the Marshall Islands’ leverage if and when negotiations for a new Compact begin. When they do, the Americans better be ready to increase their role in addressing the lingering implications of nuclear testing and make significant strides to help the islands combat climate change. Otherwise, I am afraid the Marshallese will not have to look too far for another suitor.

Extrapolating Lessons from the Marshall Islands

No, the US did not conduct devastating nuclear tests on each of the Pacific nations and yes, the Marshall Islands are but one small country in a far-off corner of the world. But, when you zoom out and aggregate America’s standing in the region, the threats add up. The Federal States of Micronesia and Palau also have Compacts of Free Association expiring soon. Further, US assets and interests in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and diplomatic missions throughout the region will be undermined if Chinese influence continues to slowly permeate the region.  The best path forward is for the US to take a dominant role in the fight against climate change. The islanders are waiting.

Chris is a second year MA student in the LBJ School's Global Policy program; his interests lie in global political economy, trade and economic relations, great power competition, and energy policy. This semester, Chris is diving deep into climate science, the geopolitics of energy, and commodity resource markets.

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