The atolls and islands that make up the present-day Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) were claimed by Germany in 1885 and occupied by Japan during World War I. U.S. forces took control during World War II, and the RMI was placed under U.S. trusteeship in 1947. The country gained independence in 1986.
The RMI maintains close relations with the United States under a Compact of Free Association that first came into force in 1986. The pact allows the United States to maintain military facilities in the RMI in exchange for defense guarantees and development assistance. An amended compact that took effect in 2004 will run through 2023, promising annual U.S. transfers of $57 million over the first 10 years and $62 million per year for the following 10 years. The amended compact contains funding and accountability requirements that were absent in the original, but RMI citizens retain visa-free access to the United States to live, work, study, and seek medical services.
The 2004 compact extended use of the Kwajalein missile-testing range—the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles and missile-defense systems since 1964—through 2066, and it has long been a source of controversy among the local people. Landowners have rejected the amended compact, demanding higher annual rent payments of $19 million, instead of the U.S. offer of $15 million. Their rejection has placed significant pressure on the national government, as the RMI relies on compact funds for nearly two-thirds of its annual budget.
Compensation for the victims of nuclear weapons testing conducted at the Bikini and Enewetak atolls more than 50 years ago has been another point of contention. Bikini remains uninhabitable and Enewetak is partly contaminated. While a $150 million Nuclear Claims Fund is supposed to provide compensation for past, present, and future RMI claimants, victims argue that this sum is inadequate. The United States has refused to contribute more, maintaining that this sum is in addition to the $1.5 billion already paid out for personal injury and property damages under the original compact.
Results of the January 2008 general elections gave no clear majority to any single party. However, the elections were considered free and fair by international observers. Former speaker and traditional chief Litokwa Tomeing of the Aelon Kein Ad (Our Islands) party was chosen as the new president by 18 of the 33 parliament members. Tomeing pledged transparency and good governance and assured Taiwan of continued diplomatic ties. He also promised renegotiation of the amended compact to obtain higher rents, more development assistance, and full compensation for those affected by weapons tests. In October 2008, Tomeing survived an opposition-led vote of no confidence. He defeated a second no-confidence vote in March 2009, which had been initiated by his supporters in protest of his dismissal of Foreign Minister Tony deBrum, a representative for Kwajalein. DeBrum had openly criticized the prime minister for failing to work with landowners to attain higher rent payments from the United States.
With limited education and employment opportunities, many residents take advantage of special privileges under the compact agreement and migrate to the United States. In 2009, a record 1,500 residents left the RMI. Approximately one-third of all RMI citizens currently reside overseas, primarily in the United States.