Another island saga

The Falklands crisis in the south Atlantic has given the world a new sensitivity to the status of islands everywhere. An encouraging diplomatic step in the Marshalls of the central Pacific shows how patient negotiation can lead to progress in resolving status questions. Indeed, the signing of an agreement for ''free association'' between the Marshalls and the United States could nudge forward similar pending agreements between the US and each of two other groups in the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

It is important that these agreements be convincingly fair in the eyes of the islanders, the US, and international opinion. Then the overriding goal of ending the trusteeship--the last of 11 post-World War II trusteeships still in existence--would be in sight.

The particular challenge here is that this trusteeship is the only one designated as ''strategic,'' and thus ending it requires action by the United Nations Security Council.Here the Soviet Union or some other nation with veto power could try to embarrass the US by calling the proposed new arrangements a continuation of colonialism - while ironically locking the old trusteeship in place.

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The task for the islands and the US has been to come up with an offer too good to refuse. One group, the Northern Marianas, has already voted to become a territory of the US, a free choice that can hardly be gainsaid. The Marshalls have opted not exactly for independence but for the status of ''a state in free association'' with the US. It would not be a nation in the sense of joining the United Nations. But it would be free to enter or not enter into treaties such as the Law of the Sea and join in regional agreements and organizations. The arrangements would be similar to but not exactly like the only current''free association'' relationships - New Zealand with the Cook Islands and with Niue. It would be duplicated by the Palau group and the Micronesian islands that are also among the specks of land scattered over a trusteeship as large as the continental United States.

As part of the dozen-year negotiations on the Marshalls the US has agreed to an economic package of some $1.5 billion. It covers general economic aid over the initial 15 years of free association; compensation ending the claims of victims of radiation from US atomic bomb tests in the islands; and payment for use of Kwajalein as the target of US missile tests for 50 years.

In short, the Marshalls' economic and political interests would be addressed while maintaining US security interests and responsibilities. It is all subject to a plebiscite in the Marshalls and majority vote by both houses of the US Congress.

The Reagan administration inherited the package more or less as it inherited the Law of the Sea Treaty, and it subjected both to intensive review. While it has hung back on the sea treaty, it has given full support to the arrangements for going beyond the outdated Pacific trusteeship. The outcome could be a model of resolving the status of islands with peace, progress, and dignity for all concerned.

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