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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — For decades, the tiny Marshall Islands has been a stalwart American ally. Its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has made it a key strategic outpost for the U.S. military.

But that loyalty is being tested amid a dispute with Washington over the terms of its “Compact of Free Association” agreement, which expires soon.

The U.S. is refusing to engage the Marshallese on claims for environmental and health damage caused by dozens of nuclear tests it carried out in the 1940s and ’50s, including a huge thermonuclear blast on Bikini Atoll.

The dispute has some U.S. lawmakers worried that China might be willing to step into the breach, adding to a bruising competition for geopolitical dominance between the two superpowers.

Since World War II, the U.S. has treated the Marshall Islands, along with Micronesia and Palau, much like territories. On the Marshall Islands, the U.S. has developed military, intelligence and aerospace facilities in a region where China is particularly active.

In turn, U.S. money and jobs have benefited the Marshall Islands’ economy. And many Marshallese have taken advantage of their ability to live and work in the U.S., moving in the thousands to Arkansas, Hawaii and Oklahoma.

But this month, 10 Democratic and Republican members of the House of Representatives wrote to President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, about the U.S. compact talks with the Marshalls, Micronesia and Palau.

“It is distressing that these negotiations do not appear to be a priority — there have been no formal meetings since this Administration began — even as our international focus continues shifting to the Indo-Pacific,” they wrote.

The lawmakers said the delays were putting the U.S. in a weaker position, and “China is all too ready to step in and provide the desperately needed infrastructure and climate resiliency investment that is sought by these long-time partners.”

China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. should face up to its responsibility to restore the environmental damage it caused with its nuclear tests. It said China was willing to engage with the Marshall Islands and other Pacific island nations on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation under the “One China Principle,” in which Taiwan is viewed as part of China.

“We welcome efforts to boost economic relations and improve the quality of life between the sides,” the ministry said in a statement.

China has steadily poached allies from Taiwan in the Pacific, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in 2019. Just this week, angry protesters in the Solomons set fire to buildings and looted stores in unrest that some have linked to the China switch.

James Matayoshi, the mayor of Rongelap Atoll on the Marshall Islands, said he and hundreds of others have remained displaced from their atoll since the nuclear tests and want to see it revitalized. He said officials have been talking with potential investors from Asia, after a previous proposal by a Chinese-Marshallese businessman fell through.

“It would be a business transaction. We don’t advocate for war or any superpower influence,” Matayoshi said. “But we want to be able to live in our backyard, and enjoy life here.”

Like many others on the Marshall Islands, Matayoshi believes a U.S. settlement of $150 million agreed to in the 1980s fell well short of addressing the nuclear legacy. He said his late mother was pregnant at the time of one massive nuclear blast and got exposed to radiation that was the equivalent of 25,000 X-rays before giving birth to a stillborn baby.

But the U.S. position has remained static for more than 20 years, the last time the compact came up for renegotiation. The U.S. maintains that nuclear compensation was dealt with in a “full and final settlement” and cannot be reopened.

Marshallese Senator David Paul — who is on the islands’ negotiating committee and also represents Kwajalein Atoll, which is home to a major U.S. military base — said continuing high cancer rates and the displacement of people remain huge issues.

“Everyone knows the negotiations at that time were not fair or equitable,” Paul said. “When you look at the total cost of property damage and the ongoing health issues to date, it’s a drop in the bucket. It’s an insult.”

Various estimates put the true cost of the damage at about $3 billion, including for repairs to a massive nuclear waste facility known as the Cactus Dome which environmentalists say is leaking toxic waste into the ocean.

A report to Congress last year from the U.S. Department of Energy said the dome contains over 100,000 cubic yards (76,000 cubic meters) of radioactively contaminated soil and debris but the structure wasn’t in any immediate danger of failing. The report concluded that any contaminated groundwater flowing beneath the structure was not measurably impacting the environment.

As it did in earlier compact negotiations, the U.S. has stonewalled discussions on the nuclear legacy, something that American officials acknowledge.

“We know that’s important, but there is a full and final settlement, and both sides agreed to it,” said a senior U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss the issue and spoke on condition of anonymity. “So, that issue is just not subject to being reopened. But, we’re still quite willing to work with the (Marshallese) on the broader issues that are important to us and that’s what we hope to do.”

The U.S. State Department said the Indo-Pacific is central to U.S. foreign policy.

“We are prioritizing achieving success in the negotiations related to the Compacts with the Freely Associated States as a regional foreign policy objective,” the department said.

The frustrations of the Marshallese were apparent in a letter sent last month by Foreign Minister Casten Nemra to Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s oversight and investigations panel.

“The State and Interior Department officials involved have been unwilling to discuss an agenda for the talks and tried to confine the discussion to their own limited proposals,” Nemra wrote. “The nuclear issue clearly was one reason. All issues raised by the Marshall Islands were met with assertions that they did not have authority to discuss the matters without any indication that they would seek it.”

Sen. Paul said the American approach needs to change.

“I believe the U.S. has the legal and moral obligation to make sure they clean up this debris,” Paul said. “We want to make sure we get a better deal this time around. As they say, the third time is a charm.”

___

Lee reported from Washington.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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LaVine, DeRozan Lead Bulls To 111-107 Win Over Nets

NEW YORK (AP) — The Bulls were down, but not out.

Behind Zach LaVine’s 31 points and DeMar DeRozan’s 29, 13 in the fourth quarter, Chicago overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half to beat the Brooklyn Nets 111-107 on Saturday night.

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“I thought they were the quicker, more responsive team earlier in the game,” said coach Billy Donovan. “Coming out of the half we talked about the adjustments we had to make, and they went out there and did it. What DeMar did out there in the third and fourth quarter was amazing.”

Nikola Vucevic and Ayo Dosunmu each added 11 points for the Bulls in a matchup of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,” DeRozan said.

The Bulls also beat the East-leading Nets on Nov. 8 and have clinched the season series.

“We’re just going to keep coming,” DeRozan added. “We’re learning not to get down on ourselves if we’re missing shots. We’re learning a very critical part of the game is to stay level-headed and to stay balanced. There’s a lot of time in the game for things to turn over. Stay the course. That’s what we do.”

Kevin Durant led Brooklyn with 28 points and LaMarcus Aldridge had 20. James Harden added 14 points and 14 assists, but shot 5 for 21 from the field.

The Bulls opened the fourth on a 13-4 run and took their biggest lead at 92-86 on DeRozan’s short jumper with 7 minutes remaining.

“The greatness that DeMar displays each and every night in those crunch-time situations, to be able to witness what he’s doing on such a high level, making tough shot after tough shot while also being a leader just shows the type of person he is,” Sosunmu said.

Aldridge’s layup brought the Nets within 101-100, but they never got closer.

Durant’s 3-pointer with 39 seconds left cut it to 107-105, but Lonzo Ball answered with a 3 with 16 seconds remaining to end the threat.

Patty Mills, who scored 12 points, gave Brooklyn its biggest lead at 71-60 with 6:34 left in the third quarter.

Chicago rallied and LaVine’s 3-pointer trimmed it to 80-79 before Paul Millsap, who scored a season-high 13 points, hit a buzzer-beater to give the Nets an 82-79 lead after three quarters.

Brooklyn scored the first nine points of the game, all on 3s, and led 34-28 after the first quarter. The Nets were ahead 56-52 at the half.

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“We did a lot of good things,” coach Steve Nash said. “Our guys did what we asked them to do. We got 111 shots at the basket. They just didn’t go tonight.”

TIP-INS:

Bulls: Javonte Green, who had appeared in each of Chicago’s first 23 games, did not play Saturday after testing positive for COVID-19. That leaves DeRozan, LaVine and Ball as the only Bulls to play in every game this season.

Nets: Brooklyn has had four back-to-backs so far this season and gone 1-1 each time. … The Nets had won eight of their previous nine home games against the Bulls. … James Johnson did not play due to left shoulder soreness.

WORKING OVERTIME

Durant has played at least 37 minutes in each of his last seven games, including a season-high 45 vs. Phoenix on Nov. 21. “Kevin’s mentality is why he’s one of the best players of all-time,” Nash said. “He loves the game. To tell him we’re going to limit his minutes is not going to go over very well. We try to sneak minutes from him here and there and keep him on the bench for an extra 30 or 40 seconds when we can.”

TRIPLE THREAT

In their two games prior to Saturday, LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic all scored 25 or more points while shooting 50% or better from the field. It was the first time three teammates had reached those marks in consecutive games since Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway did it for Golden State in 1990.

FALLING ON HARD(EN) TIMES

Harden has shot 13 for 49 (26.5%) over his last three games.

UP NEXT

Bulls: Chicago hosts Denver on Monday.

Nets: Brooklyn visits Dallas on Tuesday.

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(© Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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