The Marshall Islands, a cluster of atolls and islands in the Pacific, continues to express its concern about the impact of US military activities around its air and maritime space. Within the last two weeks, there have been two US weapons tests that have failed to reach their target and have instead landed near one of the nation’s atolls.
Marshallese politicians have been highly critical of tests like these for years, and have taken the opportunity to voice their opposition to what they view as a lack of transparency on the US side. One senator recently remarked that islanders are ‘concerned that with all these ditched and aborted flights. Our constituencies down-range face increasingly significant risk of equipment failure or of tests simply gone awry.’
The Marshall Islands has a long history of forced suzerainty. The islands’ geostrategic maritime position ensured that history would lend it many foreign masters, including rule under the Spanish in the 16th century, the Germans in the 19th century, and a tug of war between Imperial Japan and the United States during the 20th century. However, in recent times the Marshallese have been dependent on their relationship with the United States as the main provider of their prosperity and security.
Under the Compact of Free Association (COFA) enforced in 1986, three states formerly under the stewardship of Washington – the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau – were granted independence while maintaining an ‘associate state’ status with the United States. One aspect of the COFA is a guarantee that the United States will continue to provide the island nations with economic assistance and free access to several domestic programmes. In addition, all three states continue to use the US dollar as their currency.
The catch is that the US maintains exclusive access and basing rights in all three nations and is responsible for conducting the countries’ foreign policy and treaty engagements, while at the same time promising to protect the COFA countries in the event of an attack. The crown jewel of these bases is the US Army Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Reagan Test Site located on the Marshallese atoll of Kwajalein used to research, develop and test missiles for the BMD programme.
Still, the United States remains sensitive to the Marshallese concerns, especially in light of its tragic history as the test site of over sixty nuclear weapons during the arms races of the Cold War. Local Marshallese politicians are therefore trying to look for an amicable solution with the US on this issue, and have pointed to an annual Joint Committee Meeting on defence and security issues that’s slated to take place later this month.