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Marshall Islands may be focus for US-China competition

MAJURO (AFP) — The Marshall Islands vote in a general election on Monday that could fan the flames of United States-China competition for strategic advantage in the Pacific — but despite the high stakes, one-third of the islands’ citizens are barred from voting.

The vote comes amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and China that has seen Kiribati and the Solomon Islands recently switch diplomatic allegiance to China after years of ties with U.S.-backed Taiwan.

In the election build-up, President Hilda Heine’s U.S. and Taiwan-aligned government has been challenged by opposition leaders keen to implement a controversial Chinese mainland-backed investment in the country.

It was the underlying cause of a vote of no-confidence that nearly ousted the government in late 2018, and the parliament has been deadlocked since, with 16 members on each side.

Even a small change in the parliamentary line-up could thrust the country’s 21-year diplomatic ties with Taiwan into question, fueling Beijing’s effort to widen its diplomatic net in the region.

But as Marshall Islanders head to polls, for the first time in 40 years of independence, those who live in the United States cannot vote because of a controversial law that eliminated voting by postal votes.

Stirring the controversy, the country’s Supreme Court last month found the voting ban unconstitutional, but said it was too late to enforce it for this election.

Of around 44,000 registered voters, an estimated 15,000 live in the United States.

The ban on offshore voting “has been the dominant issue in this election,” former Marshall Islands presidential adviser Fred Pedro said.

Heine’s government saw its majority evaporate last year when she opposed what she called an illegal and unconstitutional effort to established a Chinese investor-backed special administrative region on one atoll in the country.

The U.S.-China competition for a strategic hold in the region has created a “once-in-40-year opportunity with the United States to revisit the Compact of Free Association,” Pedro said.

“The last time we were in this position was in the early 1980s” during the cold war.

The Marshall Islands are aligned with the U.S. through a long-term treaty known as the Compact of Free Association, which gives Washington control of defense and security in exchange for billions of dollars in aid, that ends in 2023.

China has reinvigorated Washington’s interest in the islands, which were major battlegrounds with Japan in World War II.

Four years ago, the U.S. “had no interest in extending the Compact,” Foreign Minister John Silk said Friday.

“In July this year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that discussions will take place to extend the current Compact past 2023. This is a huge turnaround by the United States, which only a few years ago brushed off any talk of future negotiations to extend the Compact.”

Pedro said the changed geopolitical landscape augured well for the Marshall Islands and provided “an opportunity for us to tweak and polish the arrangement we already have. The time is right to take up the nuclear test legacy and other issues with the U.S.”

The island nation was ground zero for 67 American nuclear weapons tests from 1946-1958 at Bikini and Enewetak atolls, when it was under U.S. administration. Numerous islanders were forcibly evacuated from ancestral lands and resettled, while thousands more were exposed to radioactive fallout.