With China poised, Campbell says vital for US to approve Pacific deals

By David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -It is essential the U.S. Congress approves new agreements with three Pacific island states, the U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said on Thursday, stressing that China is waiting to take advantage if the U.S. fails to fulfill its commitments.

Campbell made the comments about new 20-year funding programs for the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Marshall Islands (RMI) and Palau awaiting congressional approval while testifying at a Senate hearing on his nomination to become the Biden administration’s next deputy secretary of state.

Asked about the importance of Congress approving the new funding, Campbell called the islands critical to U.S. security and places where the U.S. has enormous strategic, historic and moral responsibilities.

“I will simply say to the Senate, that literally China is waiting,” he said.

“If we don’t get it (the COFA funding) you can expect that literally the next day Chinese diplomats – military and other folks – will be on the plane …trying to secure a better deal for China. We need to do this.”

After years of painstaking negotiations, the Biden administration signed new funding programs this year for the three nations under which Washington is responsible for their defense and provides economic assistance, while gaining exclusive military access to strategic swathes of the Pacific.

However, the new Compacts of Free Association (COFA), worth a total of $7.1 billion over 20 years, remain in limbo due to budget wrangling in Congress which has seen Republicans demand spending cuts elsewhere to offset any new spending.

Lawmakers proposed including the $2.3 billion in new funding needed for the COFAs in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but it is not in the current bill text released on Wednesday night that is awaiting Congressional approval.

The funds though have been included in a supplemental budget request from the Biden administration, covering foreign policy priorities such as Ukraine and the war in the Middle East, but the fate of that remains uncertain due to opposition among Republicans.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina; editing by Diane Craft)