By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. presidential envoy leading negotiations to renew agreements with three Pacific island states said on Wednesday he will visit them next week hoping to make progress ahead of a trip to the region by President Joe Biden later this month.
Joseph Yun told Reuters he would be in Micronesia on Monday and would then visit Palau and the Marshall Islands.
"We want to make progress," Yun said, referring to talks to renew so-called Compact for Free Association (COFA) agreements with the three states.
Under these agreements, due to expire this year and next, the United States retains responsibility for the islands' defense and gains exclusive access to huge strategic swaths of the Pacific.
The White House said on Tuesday Biden will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Pacific islands state of Papua New Guinea following the G7 summit in Japan, underscoring his administration's investment in the Pacific region to counter China.
Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko told Reuters Biden will sign defense and surveillance agreements with Papua New Guinea during the May 22 visit that renews the strategic importance of the nation where Biden's uncle died in World War Two. An official of the White House National Security Council said they had "nothing to preview at this time."
Washington has already signed memorandums of understanding on future assistance with the three COFA states, but these still need to be finalized.
Yun said last month he was very optimistic that they would be and that the U.S. Congress would approve them in a short time, but there was still some hard work ahead.
He said then that Washington needed to accelerate diplomatic "catch up" with the Pacific island region in the face of Chinese competition.
Yun said last month the "topline" agreements with the three nations would provide them with a total of about $6.5 billion over 20 years.
In a letter late last year, more than 100 arms-control, environmental and other activist groups urged the Biden administration to formally apologize to the Marshall Islands for the impact of U.S. massive nuclear testing there in the 1940s and '50s and to provide fair compensation.
Marshall Islanders are still plagued by health and environmental effects of the 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.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Stephen Coates)