Opening for Beijing? Basing Rights in Marshall Islands

Article excerpt


Following election of a new government in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) earlier this year, an article in the Economist grossly oversimplified the question of whether the U.S. Army will have continued use of its missile-defense-system testing facility at the RMI's Kwajalein Atoll after 2016. That is when the old lease dating back to the 1980s expires. The misleading article suggests that the United States can simply make a concession by increasing payments to satisfy demands of the landowners, thereby securing future base rights at Kwajalein.

The Departments of Defense and State and the Congress carefully considered this issue in 2003, during negotiation and approval of an extended base rights agreement between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. To secure base rights long into the future if needed, the United States agreed to increase payments as requested by the RMI, coming as close as was reasonable to meeting landowner demands. But American lawyers and lobbyists for the traditional chiefs of Kwajalein demanded still more.

After the U.S. reached its cost-benefit choke point, Congress approved the increased payments agreed upon by the two governments, but mandated that the increased amounts be held in escrow contingent on landowner acceptance of the new agreement. Congress also provided that the increased payments in escrow would revert to the U.S. Treasury if no agreement is reached by December of 2008. Further, the president must report to Congress on "the intentions of the United States with respect to use of Kwajalein Atoll after 2016, on any plans to relocate activitiese and on the disposition of the funds and interest held in escrow." There is nothing ambiguous about the U.S. position as prescribed by Congress. Yet, on the advice of Washington lobbyists, the chiefs who control Kwajalein landowner interests have publicly stated that they will never accept the terms approved by Congress and their (RMI) government.

Indeed, a new RMI leadership aligned with the landowner chiefs and their lawyers recently took office. The new president and foreign minister have publicly repudiated the RMI base-rights agreement already ratified by Congress and the RMI parliament. In addition, they are supporting demands from the chiefs for increased payments, backed by open threats that the strategic facility could be turned over to China if it is the "highest bidder". …