Lemeyo Abon recalls preparing her family's breakfast when a flash of light eclipsed the morning sun. 'It was March 1, 1954,' says the 68-year-old grandmother, 'and a few hours later dust began to drift down on us like snow. We were simple islanders. How could we have known it was radioactive fallout from the largest nuclear bomb the United States ever detonated?' From 1946 to 1958, the US undertook 67 nuclear tests in the remote Marshall Islands, having persuaded the inhabitants that the sacrifice of their land for the development of atomic weapons was 'for the good of mankind and [would] end all world wars'. 'How we wish we'd turned the soldiers and scientists away,' says Jack J. Ading, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) finance minister and senator of Enewetak, the atoll on which the US conducted 43 of those tests. 'Average out the yields, and the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs was detonated each and every day of that entire 12-year period,' Ading adds, anger flashing in his eyes. The islands' remote location in the western Pacific Ocean made them highly attractive to the US as a nuclear proving ground. But it has also hindered the islanders' ability to communicate the appalling legacy of the tests to the outside world. Operation Castle Bravo, witnessed by Abon from her home on Rongelap atoll that morning, is a case in point. It remains one of the worst radiation disasters in history yet is scarcely remembered by the international community. Castle Bravo was the first deliverable hydrogen bomb - 'Ivy Mike', its predecessor, was the size of a house. So experimental was the device that its power was underestimated by about 250 per cent. The enormous explosion vaporised three islands in Bikini atoll, leaving a crater more than 1.5km wide and 60 metres deep. As well as contaminating Bikini and Rongelap, the inhabitants of Utirik and Ailinginae were also exposed. Abon's warm, weathered face tells of a life lived but not of the anguish. 'First, there were lots of miscarriages among the women,' she says. 'Soon afterwards came the deformed babies - the 'jelly babies' or the 'octopus babies' we called them. 'The birth defects have passed down the generations. My own granddaughter was born with a tail,' she observes, as if the occurrence were scarcely out of the ordinary. 'She was 'medevaced' to Honolulu for surgery and now she's 14. Sue's her name ... what a smart girl.' Then there was the cancer. Having lost her mother and father to the disease, Abon, like 90 per cent of the children who were on Rongelap that day, developed a thyroid carcinoma. 'I'm still here though,' she says, beaming, although 'here' is the republic's capital, Majuro, not her island of birth. 'And I've made sure I've told our story around the world, even to the survivors of Chernobyl.' Congressional records indicate the US has paid the Marshall Islands US$400 million in compensation for the nuclear tests and further claims are pending in the US courts. That might sound like a sizeable sum but to this day, most of the islands of Bikini, Enewetak and Rongelap atolls remain uninhabitable due to severe radioactive contamination. 'I would like to go back home to live,' says Abon, 'but will the entire atoll be decontaminated in my lifetime? I don't know.' Perhaps out of obligation, the US remains the largest aid donor to the RMI, providing US$75 million last year - a contribution that represents about 60 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. However, not all the money is offered in the spirit of friendship or making amends. A sum of US$15 million is the annual payment for the lease of Kwajalein, the largest of the island nation's atolls and home to one of the most secret and strategically important US military installations: the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defence Test Site (RTS). Kwajalein is so hush-hush that when telephoning the US Department of Defence for permission to visit, the duty officer in Washington was unsure where it was. After a few weeks, clearance had been obtained and my flight touched down on the military airfield, site of one of the most famous battles between the US and Japan during the second world war. The place looks like any other island paradise might after being occupied by US Army Space and Missile Defence Command. The enormous golf-ball radar domes scattered along the beach loom like giant mushrooms. And the residents are certainly friendly - a Vietnam war-vintage 'Huey' helicopter clatters overhead and a chap waves from the door. RTS commanding officer, Colonel Stevenson L. Reed, is a doughty southerner who has been married to the army for more years than he has been married to his wife. He explains the work carried out on the 11 islands leased from the RMI government. The base is best known for participating in the development of what was referred to as 'Star Wars', or the US missile defence shield. It also works with Nasa and commercial partners on satellite and space launches; the radar and telescopes that line the beaches are among the most sophisticated in the world. These provide feedback about intercontinental ballistic missiles launched in test runs from the west coast of the US and targeted on Kwajalein lagoon - the largest in the world. Importantly, they also monitor the geosynchronous space belt. Whether discovering a piece of space debris or a North Korean missile launch, RTS will relay the data to US Strategic Command. Considering the air of secrecy, it comes as a surprise to be invited to witness an intercontinental ballistic missile test. Arriving at the Snake Pit, the base's ocean-side bar, conditions are dark and windy. On impact, the warhead will be moving at more than 20,000km/h and a group of hospitable marines orders several rounds of drinks to assist our comprehension of this remarkable phenomenon. Whether the missile lands accurately or not, the Snake Pit certainly knows how to throw a party. Marines aside, RTS manages to pass itself off as a microcosm of small-town America. There's apple pie at the restaurant and the clerk at the Macy's store chirps, 'Have a nice day'. However, for the Marshallese chieftains, or irooj, who own Kwajalein atoll, the future of the base is a contentious issue. A cumbersome contractual arrangement sees the RMI government lease the islands from the irooj and effectively sublet them to the US. This would be fine if both leases ran concomitantly. However, the government's contract with the irooj expires in 2016 while its contract with the US ends at the earliest in 2066. The irooj are demanding the return of their land within eight years or that their government renegotiate the lease for more than the current US$15 million a year paid by the US Army; both prospects that Washington finds unpalatable. The moral high ground would appear to be with the irooj. Their representatives - usually well-paid stateside lawyers - make subtle parallels with the nuclear-test era by inferring that Kwajalein has somehow been appropriated by the American military. Army critics will also point to the poor living conditions on Ebeye, the island next to Kwajalein where the majority of the base's Marshallese contractors live in a small settlement with intermittent electricity and running water. However, it is too simplistic to cast America as the brutish interloper. The fact is the irooj are unelected and unaccountable and across their desks have flowed hundreds of millions of US taxpayer dollars since the enactment of the first Kwajalein land-use agreement. And Marshallese culture frowns upon confrontation, so few locals will stand up and challenge these traditional leaders or demand they be held accountable for some of the atrocious conditions their people live in while they siphon money off to their US bank accounts and high-tail it to their condominiums in Hawaii. Ultimately, it will be to everyone's detriment if the US is forced to pull out because a settlement cannot be reached. The military has an undeniably valuable strategic asset in RTS and the irooj will lose their cash cow. But, as ever, it is the common man and woman (and their children) who have most to lose: the base is the second largest employer in the Marshalls, which has a population of about 63,000, and about 1,000 local jobs will be lost should it close. Times are tough enough here. An estimated 30 per cent of the workforce is already jobless and a state of economic emergency has been declared in Majuro because of exorbitant inflationary pressure, particularly on the cost of fuel. Preying on this long-term economic vulnerability, Taiwan has presented itself as something of a white knight. In the late 1990s, Taipei was looking to shore up its support among United Nations member states and the impoverished Pacific islands were an obvious place to seek, and pay for, allegiance. So it was that in November 1998, then president Imata Kabua established diplomatic relations with Taipei, in response to which Beijing promptly shut its gleaming embassy and departed the islands. 'We don't release information about how much our budget is,' says Taipei's man in Majuro, Ambassador Bruce J.D. Linghu, 'but it's pretty transparent. Every time we deliver a cheque it's [reported] in the local newspaper.' Giff Johnson, editor of the paper, The Marshall Islands Journal, estimates the budget extends to about US$11 million a year. He also suggests the relationship between the RMI and mainland China may have soured well before Taipei's money became a factor. 'Until the late 90s, the government ran a scheme selling RMI passports for thousands of dollars a pop to boost national income. It was popular because, at the time, a Marshallese passport gave residency rights in the US,' Johnson explains. Much of the profit went unaccounted for but several thousand travel documents were sold and Hong Kong Chinese, nervous about the handover, were good customers - a fact that would not have sat easily with the mainland. Since the termination of diplomatic ties with Beijing, Taipei's largesse has supported a host of causes, including Majuro hospital and an agricultural research station. Several buildings bear 'Gift of Taiwan' plaques, including the city hall and a soulless international convention centre built to host the Second Taiwan-Pacific Allies Summit last October. One source close to the government argues that while the relationship with the mainland brought few economic benefits, the ties with Taiwan are far from being a panacea. 'Who needs money to build a conference centre when there isn't enough to pay for schools and healthcare?' he asks. But what riles the Marshallese most is the feeling they have been caught up in a game of geopolitical one-upmanship between Beijing and Taipei, which has led to a wave of Chinese immigration responsible for the loss of their livelihoods and culture. 'It's understandable,' acknowledges Richard Li, a counsellor at Majuro High School. 'Walk through Majuro and you'll see half the shops are Chinese where a decade ago they were all local 'mom and pop' stores. 'Chinese business success has generated animosity,' says Li, who was born in Hubei province and grew up in the US. 'As an American Chinese, I'm [considered] innocent to a certain extent - as are the Taiwanese because of the money their government brings - but the mainlanders are blamed for every social ill from alcoholism to tax evasion.' The immigration polemic has become so significant it is a central theme in Morning Comes So Soon, the first movie produced in the RMI. Released last month and directed by Aaron Condon and Mike Cruz, the adaptation of Romeo and Juliet focuses on the Marshallese reaction to Chinese ascendancy and the taboo of suicide through the story of a love affair between a local boy and an immigrant Chinese girl. The film is as compelling as it is timely and has been rapturously received at packed local theatres. 'The Marshallese tend to laugh to disseminate emotion but there are usually some pretty teary faces after the show,' says Condon. 'I think it's opened people's eyes to the issues on the table.' Taiwanese national Lin Ting-yu, the female lead of the all-amateur cast, attends Assumption High School, in Majuro. Her family arrived in the Marshalls in 1997 and owns the Formosa supermarket, which 'Dad painted green because that's the colour of Chinese separatism'. One of three Taiwanese at her school, the 18-year-old describes how being cast in the movie opened her eyes to the fact racial insensitivity is not the sole preserve of the Marshallese. 'Some Taiwanese guys went to see my dad,' she recalls. 'They said it would be bad for his business if I played a mainlander because people would think our family was actually from the mainland. Dad was worried and wanted me to drop the movie. But thank goodness my mum was like, 'Don't listen to them. If our daughter plays the role of a bank robber it doesn't mean she's going to rob a bank.'' With its open chequebook, Taiwan has clearly been the dominant player in the Marshalls over the past decade. However, Taipei's recent record of losing allies to Beijing was acknowledged in June, when Taiwan's foreign minister Francisco Ou announced he would concentrate on looking after relations with the 23 states that still recognise his country, rather than wooing new friends. Last November's general election in the RMI saw the opposition Aelon Kein Ad (AKA) coalition play on Taipei's concerns, with suggestions it would re-establish ties with Beijing if elected. Within hours of the AKA's victory in January, then Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian was on the phone congratulating the new president, Litokwa Tomeing, and within a fortnight the government had received its first cheque from Taipei: US$1 million to re-launch Air Marshall Islands, which had been grounded for several months due to cash-flow problems. While Linghu talks about the bond between Taiwan and the Marshalls being based on shared respect for values such as democracy, the new government's highly public manoeuvring means the relationship is clearly based on expediency rather than commonalities. One wonders, therefore, how sustainable continued recognition of Taiwan is, particularly given the subtle shift in the economic balance of power between the mainland and Taiwan that is already underway in the country. Witness two seafood businesses located 45 metres apart in downtown Majuro: on the lagoon side of the road is a part-Hong-Kong-owned wharf and sashimi factory that a fleet of Taiwanese trawlers uses as its base. A stone's throw away on the ocean side of the road is a new tuna processing factory and its accompanying fleet, operated by Beijing-owned Shanghai Deep Sea Fishing. The cross-strait tensions should be palpable. At the sashimi plant, a lackadaisical workforce is unloading tuna from a Taiwanese trawler; a few staff are smoking and access to a grubby freezer unit reveals hundreds of shark carcasses stacked floor to ceiling, their fins cut off for sale in the lucrative Hong Kong market. 'Maybe the remains will be used for fish cakes in a month or two,' a sweating, half-naked stevedore comments. On the other side of the road at Shanghai Deep Sea, the factory stands out as a gleaming paragon of efficiency and hygiene. The staff are smiling and the place is so cutting-edge that, to minimise the threat of industrial espionage, it is harder to secure permission to shoot photos there than at the military base on Kwajalein. Shanghai Deep Sea's senior management is made up of mainland expats. They speak fluent English and ooze business-school charm, from their clothes to their banter. Don Xu, the company's vice-president, outlines the vision: 'We see about 700 Marshallese [being] on staff within six months and, with exports targeted at US$80 million a year, we intend to contribute 5 per cent of the country's GDP from the outset.' With this kind of clout, the mainland may soon nullify the impact of Taipei's donations to the RMI government. And, with the Olympic Games on the horizon - the Marshall Islands is sending its first-ever squad - it might be an opportune moment for Beijing to reach out to the diplomats accompanying the athletes. 'They may try to [approach] us, but our trip to Beijing really is about the sport, not the politics,' says Christopher Loeak, minister in assistance to the president. Reflecting on his words, one does have to wonder. This is a government that, perhaps out of necessity, has played Taiwan for extra funding by threatening to turn to the mainland and, in the past few weeks, appears to have adopted a similar tactic with the US over the disputed lease on Kwajalein: a June 30 Washington Times piece reflected on rumours that America's prized space and missile installation was now being offered to China 'if it is the highest bidder'. Goodness knows the journey to the Games has been hard enough for this small island nation. From near nuclear obliteration to the top of the medal podium is surely too much to ask - unless, that is, politics and brinksmanship have become Olympic events.