Biden Nominates China Specialist to be Ambassador to Strategic Marshall Islands

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on healthcare coverage and the economy, at the White House in Washington, U.S. July 7, 2023.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated a senior career diplomat to be U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands, a strategic Pacific territory that has become a focus for competition with China.

The nominee, Laura Stone, is currently deputy coordinator at the State Department’s Office of COVID Response and previously served as deputy assistant secretary for India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives.

A Chinese speaker, Stone also worked previously as coordinator of efforts to counter Chinese malign economic influence and as acting deputy assistant secretary for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mongolia.

The Marshall Islands is one of three Pacific island nations covered by so-called Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with Washington, under which the U.S. retains responsibility for their defense and provides economic assistance, while gaining exclusive access to huge strategic swathes of the Pacific.

Renewing the pacts become a key part of U.S. efforts to push back against China’s bid to expand its influence in the Pacific, but according to regional news reports, a final deal with the Marshall Islands has been held up by disagreement over how to address the legacy of massive U.S. nuclear testing.

Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats have been courting the region and China’s construction and mining companies have expanded their business in Pacific island nations.

In May, the U.S. said it had renewed COFA terms with Micronesia and Palau and its chief negotiator told Reuters then he hoped to finalize a deal with the Marshall Islands, whose COFA is due to expire this year, in coming weeks.

Under memorandums of understanding agreed this year, the U.S. will commit a total of $7.1 billion over 20 years to the three nations, subject to U.S. Congressional approval.

Marshall Islanders are still plagued by health and environmental effects of 67 U.S. nuclear bomb tests from 1946 to 1958, which included “Castle Bravo” at Bikini Atoll in 1954 – the largest U.S. bomb ever detonated.

Last year, more than 100 arms-control, environmental and other activist groups urged the Biden administration to formally apologize to the Marshall Islands and provide fair compensation.