War flashbacks in Guam as China projects power in the Pacific

Editor's ChoiceWar flashbacks in Guam as China projects power in the Pacific

Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero, the Governor of Guam, a US territory, is not just waiting for the rest of the USto come save them. In this interview conducted in July, she describes some of the initiatives she is hoping to get off the ground so Guam is better able to defend itself.

Guam, USA

Hours after Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it captured Guam—American territory. The reason why was described by Guam Governor Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero in her August 24th Congressional testimony:

“From 1521 to the present day, Guam has been, and continues to be, a linchpin of every Pacific Power. The reasons for this are simple. On the axis that crosses 5,000 miles of the Pacific between Hawai’i and Asia, Guam is the only island with a protected harbor and sufficient land for major airports.

“Guam is also the largest landfall for communications, shipping, and military installations on the nearly 3,000-mile north axis from Japan to Papua New Guinea and Australia. This geography means that Guam has access by air and sea to China and Southeast Asia to the west, Hawai’i and North America to the east, and Japan to the north.

“For these reasons, Guam has played a unique and pivotal role in nearly every major American conflict in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As a result of American engagement in [Guam and the islands around Guam] and the larger Pacific region, the United States won an unparalleled period of peace, economic trade, and shared prosperity in the Pacific.”

The Governor was testifying because she is concerned that period is coming to an end. As she said: “as time passed and other priorities drew America’s watchful eye away from Pacific Island Countries, China emerged… because Guam can project power throughout the Indo-Pacific region, China is working to project equal power onto Guam and its sister islands”.

That effort has been seen in a range of ways, including the Chinese media calling the DF-26 the “Guam killer missile” and the recent China-linked Volt Typhooncyber attack on critical infrastructure in Guam.

The US has been reinforcing Guam, including with the first new Marines base in 70 years and increased missile defence installations and technologies, however there are concerns it will not be enough. Locals have seen it before. And don’t want to see it again.

At the hearing, the Governor said: “Our history of Guam has been an experience of war…our people have witnessed and experienced direct atrocities of war and as a result of that we do not want to go back in that direction. [During the Japanese occupation] we saw theatrocities of our women being raped, our children being forced into labor, we had to witness beheadings of loved ones and that was very traumatic and I think significant in terms of our great desire to once again be prepared to defend our island and our people.

“And that’s why I think our island is very much committed to working with our partners, our military partners, our federal partners, because we do not want that to happen [again]. We do not want to be under Chinese rule, which can possibly happen, if we do not pay attention… and the United States does not give us the resources and protection to not just protect our island but this part of the Indo-Pacific region.”

But, as seen in many other places in the region, the Governor is not just waiting for the rest of the U.S. to come save them. In our Q&A conducted in July, she described some of the initiatives she is hoping to get off the ground so Guam is better able to defend itself.

Q: How can Guam become more secure?

A: We don’t have our own military, but we certainly have to make sure that we are prepared and we know exactly what we need to do if these threats become very serious. My thoughtis to have alocal Security Council.

I have tasked my homeland security adviser to do more research. I’m thinking maybe involving all the key players of defense, our law enforcement, our National Guard. And not that the US will be a sitting member of this council, but they would be very involved in participating with the strategies and so forth. That’s my thinking for our local island, but I [also] want to raise the issue on a regional level.

We would like to raise it in the Micronesian Island Forum [members include two parts of the US (Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands/CNMI), the three U.S. Freely Associated States (Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia), and the independent countries of Nauru and Kiribati]. We are hosting in 2024.

What I would envision it to be is a regional security council, with members from each of the [five] sovereign [Micronesian] nations, and Guam and CNMI. We’d have to discuss how it’s going to be organized.

Q: What would a Micronesian Security Council do?

A: [Discuss] what are the policies that we will be backing? How do we address China? How do we address threats? How do we address the US?The landscape of threats is a bit, I think, overwhelming for all of us.

Leaders in this part of the Pacific need to get together and unite in their voice on how to defend their islands, how to provide quality of life for their islands, how to address climate change, and how to address their economic growth—one of their biggest concerns.

Those are some of the issues we discuss. Islanders don’t really like to do those kinds of things in public. It’s more behind the scene discussions. Then they support each other and then at public meetings they already have it all ironed out.

[One example of an area to work together], transportation is a very big concern for our islands. We are at the mercy of one airline [United]. And it’s very expensive to fly. Our island brothers and sisters’ minimum wage is anywhere from $2.25 to maybe as high as $3 or $4. But transportation is in the hundreds of dollars. Even 1000s. I think it’s a bit unreasonable. I think we could do better in supporting each other’s economy if we had a better transport and better cargo flow for supply of goods and services.

So, it’s worth the five nations and Guam and CNMI standing up a much greater unity for our Micronesian Islands. We are one. If you read our history in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, we travelled back and forth in proas [outrigger canoes]. It was like “Oh, get in the car. Let’s get on the freeway and go visit Aunty Maria over in [another island group]”. That’s really powerful and something to build on.

The other reason I want to be very united with the region is to have a stronger voice in the United States.

Q: There has been discussion about Guam applying to join the Pacific Islands Forum. There are other non-fully sovereign members, such as French Polynesia and New Caledonia (belonging to France). What has the reception been?

A:The PIF is [seen as more about] the Southern Pacific islands, but I know that they’re very, very interested in also having the Northern Pacific islands join. And I know that the sovereign [Northern Pacific] nations are there, but we’re not. We’re only an observer and we’re applying for associate member.

The support is with all the leaders there. Northern Pacific island nations are very supportive.  We’ve been in communication with the General Secretary. He’s actually encouraging us to move forward with our associate membership application and he is coming for a visit here, so that’s a good sign. [At] the last Pacific Island summit in DC, I spoke to some of the leaders there and they were welcoming, we just need to go through the process.

The US is not too sure yet—they are not sure how to support it because we are not a sovereign island nation. And I think their preference would be that if we had any presence there that it would be under the US delegation.

I’m not agreeable to that because we’re part of the islands here, right? I mean, geographically distance wise, culturally, climate wise, everything. We are an island. And soto have to be there under the delegation of the US, I think diminishes. It’s not that the US is not important. But I think our stature there becomes a little bit diluted.

Q: What is it like working with Washington?

A: We’ve been under the United States for so long—since the Spanish American War.

The leaders of INDOPACOM are very knowledgeable [about Guam] and they’re very experienced. When I go to Washington, my dealings are with Pentagon and the White House. Most US states don’t even go to the Pentagon. My dealing isn’t necessarily the Congress either, but I go straight to the federal agencies. I think Congress needs to be educated more about the importance here and I think the military is trying to do a good job in that way.

Q: How concerned are you about conflict in the region?

A: We are not at a level where we feel we are prepared, althoughour partnership with the military here is very, very good. They’re looking at how do we protect Guam—we are the first in the US to protect the US. Our strategic geographic location is very prime and very important for the security of the nation.

Some say that by allowing the US military to base in Guam, we are making ourselves a target. That’s nonsense. We are a target because of geography. And I’d much prefer the US military be here than the Chinese military.

Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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