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MAJURO, Marshall Islands (November 7, 1997 - Marshall Islands Journal)--- The fact that the Marshall Islands is an independent country does not affect the strength of the relationship with the United States, said U.S. Ambassador Joan Plaisted in response to a series of questions from the Marshall Islands Journal.

The U.S. ambassador said that the U.S. government recognizes and honors the fact that the Marshall Islands opted for independence in 1986. "We support (the Mashall Islands) right to self-determination," she said. "That you are independent does not diminish the strength of our friendship."

Moreover, the ambassador contends that the U.S. commitment to the Pacific region is not declining. Compact funding aside, the U.S. provides a wide range support to its "Pacific partners," including the East-West Center and the South Pacific Commission. In fiscal year 1996, the U.S. provided $290 million to the Marshalls, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau through the Compact, not including dozens of U.S. federal programs, she added.

U.S. budget constraints have focused the U.S. agenda on the "most effective means to ensure our national security. In that vein, the U.S. government is carefully examining its post cold-war security needs in the Pacific and how technological advances affect those needs."

While the Marshall Islands has lobbied to begin renegotiation of the Compact soon, Plaisted said the U.S. government's position is determined by the Compact, which says renegotiations are to start in 1999.

"The government of the United States will begin negotiations in a timely manner as called for by the Compact of Free Association," she said. "This position is not a State Department position, nor a Department of Interior position, nor a Department of Defense position. It is the position of the U.S. government."

The ambassador said that an inter-agency working group within the U.S. government is "examining issues and making recommendations to U.S. policy makers (for the negotiations)."

Though the U.S. is not prepared to start formal talks, "we are glad to listen to any Marshallese concerns through normal diplomatic channels and through Compact mechanisms, such as our annual economic consultations," Plaisted said.

The U.S. hopes that the Marshall Islands will work together with the U.S. in the upcoming Compact negotiations.

"In our view, any renegotiation of the Compact ought to be cooperative rather than confrontational," she said. "I think the Marshallese should view renegotiation as an opportunity to examine the past 15 years and what has and has not worked, and an opportunity to forge an agreement which can help the people of the Marshall Islands gain economic security along with self-sufficiency and independence."

In reply to whether or not the Compact has been a success, Plaisted said that "the Compact has been a learning experience for us all as it codified a unique and special relationship between our countries. The goal of the Compact was to promote self-sufficiency; in that effort I believe much more could have been accomplished."

The ambassador said that it was her hope that the 1999 renegotiations "will take into account what sort of a relationship would best help the Marshall Islands obtain true self-reliance."

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail: Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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