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By Jim Wolf

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (February 3, 1999 - Reuters)---Like the fictional "Mouse that Roared," the tiny Republic of the Marshall Islands has sent Washington a wake-up call.

RMI leaders say they will seek a much better deal in exchange for continued U.S. access to Kwajalein, an atoll in the central Pacific vital to Washington's drive to build a shield against ballistic missiles.

Hiking the rent, variously estimated at $10 million to $12.8 million a year, to an unspecified "fair market value" will be the top priority in coming lease renewal negotiations with the United States, RMI Foreign Minister Phillip Muller said in an interview here on Sunday.

Pointedly, he left open the David-vs.-Goliath possibility that Marshallese clan leaders, if they perceive they are being short-changed, could seek to disrupt U.S. operations as they did repeatedly in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"We know from history what they are capable of doing," he said, referring to "sail-ins" and "sit-ins" on U.S.-leased islands before the current military operating pact took effect in 1986. The current president, Imata Kabua, who is also Kwajalein's largest landholder, was clubbed by a U.S.-employed guard during one such protest he led in July 1979.

The Marshall Islands has a complex relationship with the United States under a 1986 Compact of Free Association. Part of a former U.S.-administered trust territory, the RMI granted the United States permanent responsibility for its defense and security during the Cold War. A related military agreement gave the United States the continued use of a U.S. Army missile test range on Kwajalein Atoll for 15 years with an option to renew automatically at a fixed rate for another 15.

In exchange, the RMI received economic grants, access to many federal programs and, with neighboring islands states, more U.S. funding per capita than any other nation.

"We think the Marshallese people are entitled to a much better deal for use of this unique asset," Muller, who is to head the RMI negotiating team, said of the missile test range.

Redress will also be sought for a long list of grievances led by "grossly insufficient" compensation for harm from 67 U.S. nuclear tests carried out there from 1946 to 1958, he added.

Claims for hundreds of millions of dollars are pending, notably for loss of property on the "ground zero" test sites in the Bikini and Enewetak atolls. Muller said initial U.S. funding of the awards, $150 million, was based on incomplete data provided to Marshallese negotiators in the early 1980s.

The minister's comments, taken as a whole, suggest the United States could face a substantially bigger bill in coming years for continued problem-free access to Kwajalein.

Critical aspects of U.S. ballistic missile, anti-ballistic missile, space and intelligence-gathering programs hinge on a $4 billion complex on Kwajalein Atoll, made up of about 100 coral islands looped around a 900-square-mile (14,400-square kilometer) lagoon, the world's largest.

For decades the lagoon has served like a baseball catcher's mitt for intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, almost 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) away in the continental United States, and intermediate-range missiles from Barking Sands, Hawaii, nearly 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) away.

In the post-Cold War world, Kwajalein is being used to develop a fixed, land-based system to shield all 50 U.S. states from long-range missiles such as those apparently being developed by North Korea and Iran. It is also a prime test bed for "theater" missile defenses to protect troops in the field.

A decision on whether to deploy a limited national defense system, due in June 2000, depends largely on four performance tests of interceptors cued by early warning satellites and fired from Kwajalein, U.S. officials said last month.

In a process known to the military as hitting a "bullet with a bullet," the target and decoys are launched aboard an Air Force Minutemen II booster fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The target is to be shot down over the remote Pacific at a high altitude outside Earth's atmosphere.

Kwajalein is the only spot on Earth suitable both for full-scale testing of long-range missiles and for testing ballistic missile intercepts outside the atmosphere, the Pentagon says. Under U.S. Army control since 1964, the lagoon's shallow waters make for easy retrieval of test objects, and the very deep surrounding ocean provides secure disposal of objects not to be recovered.

A top Pentagon official has said renewing the lease is an issue of the "highest priority." The United States has an option to renew automatically for 15 years regardless of the outcome of the talks, but doing so over Marshallese objections might prove problematic.

"The requirements of our missile defense and space surveillance programs, combined with the uniqueness of Kwajalein's location, infrastructure investment, and real world treaty restrictions, makes this an issue of the highest priority," Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the region, told Congress in October.

Foreign Minister Muller said the RMI was working with private U.S. consultants to pin down the terms of a possible package deal for renewing the lease. This might include a lump sum payment to a new development fund that would upgrade schools, hospitals and other infrastructure for Marshallese living on non-U.S.-leased islands in Kwajalein atoll, he said.

In exchange, the RMI was prepared to consider a possible 30-year extension rather than the 15-year automatic renewal option to 2016 already in Washington's pocket, he said.

The RMI economy is heavily dependent on revenue generated by the missile range, including an estimated $14 million in annual salaries to nearly 1,300 Marshallese workers who live on neighboring Ebeye and commute to Kwajalein by ferry.

Muller said a fair market value for using Kwajalein could be based on U.S. rent for comparable overseas facilities. He made his remarks during a stopover in Honolulu en route to Taiwan to prepare a state visit by President Kabua this week.

U.S.-RMI negotiations are to begin by Oct. 21, two years before the current 15-year lease runs out, along with economic provisions of a pact called the Compact of Free Association, which governs U.S. ties with the Marshalls.

Under the compact with the RMI and another with the neighboring Federated States of Micronesia, Washington has responsibility for defense in return for the right to deny access to third countries -- a way to keep the Soviet Union out of millions of square miles of the Pacific in the Cold War.

The Clinton administration has yet to name a chief negotiator despite an RMI push for early negotiations while Kabua, who holds as much as 90 percent of Kwajalein land under complex feudal arrangements, is in office as president.

Campbell, testifying before a joint hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives committees on Resources and International Relations, noted that using Kwajalein could become more difficult if negotiations on expiring economic aid dragged on and the Marshallese turned sour.

"While the agreements may be negotiated separately, provisos of the compact help provide the basis for the support of the Marshallese, who in turn provide not only much of the labor force but also a positive local environment, which is critical for continued success at Kwajalein," he said.

Copyright 1999

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