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As US Grows Guam Presence to Deter China, Wary Locals Are Denied A Choice

With tensions high between the US and China, one small island in the Pacific stands as a nuclear-capable front line in what has the potential to be one of the devastating wars the world has ever seen.

And as the US military expands its already dominant presence, not everyone who calls Guam home wants any part in such a conflict. And yet, the indigenous people living on the shrinking two-thirds of the island not already consumed by US military bases have little to no choice in the matter.

“There are many in the community who are critical of the role that Guam, as an unincorporated territory, is forced to play in the posturing and aggression occurring between China and the United States,” Melvin Won Pat-Borja, executive director of the Guam government’s Commission on Decolonization, told Newsweek.

“As a Territory,” he added, “Guam’s relationship with the federal government, and thus the Department of Defense, is marked by consultation and not consent.”

The complex history between the US and Guam, an island located some 6,000 miles from California, began with another war, one waged between the US and Spain in 1898. The US seized Guam on the way to wresting control of the Philippines, which also remained a US territory until gaining independence in 1946 after World War II, during which both Guam and the Philippines were invaded by the Japanese Empire.

“Guam and its people have a long and complicated history with war,” Won Pat-Borja said. “During WWII, it was one of the few US-held territories occupied by enemy forces. The brutal occupation by Imperial Japan lasted from 1941 until the retaking of the island by the US in 1944.”

Since then, Guam has played a critical role in a number of US wars, from Korea to Vietnam and even more recent conflicts in the Middle East, during which US bases on the island have helped to facilitate the movement of equipment and personnel. But this US military footprint has also put a target on the island’s roughly 150,000 residents, as directly evidenced in 2017 when North Korea began openly threatening Guam amid a war of words with the US

Won Pat-Borja said that as a result, “the threat of war and even nuclear war have become a somewhat normal part of daily life here in Guam.” This threat has only further set in for the island’s population amid rising US-China tensions.

“Now, with escalated tensions in our region,” Won Pat-Borja said, “the people of Guam are again facing threats of missile strikes by China and experiencing the hyper-militarization of their homeland by the United States.”

Locals, the majority of whom trace their ancestry to the native Chamorro people, also spelled CHamoru, do not have to speculate as to the US intentions for Guam in the current trajectory of geopolitical frictions in the Pacific.

Speaking in December 2021, the deputy head of US Indo-Pacific Command Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka proclaimed that “Guam is a place where our combat power will aggregate and congregate and from which it will emanate.”

“From there we send a powerful strategic message to our allies and our adversaries that the United States has invested in this region—we prioritize the Indo-Pacific,” Sklenka said at the time.

General Slenka’s statement comes months after a letter signed by three UN special rapporteurs issued a historic rebuke to the US government over “the impacts of the United States of America’s increased military presence in Guam and the failure to protect the indigenous Chamorro people from the loss of their traditional lands, territories, and resources; serious adverse environmental impacts; the loss of cultural artifacts and human remains; as well as the denial of the right to free, prior and informed consent and self-determination.”

Today, Guam is recognized as one of only 17 “non-self-governing territories” recognized by the UN and international experts regularly express concern over the island’s relationship with the US

But the militarization has only intensified with the US Marines opening their first new base in 70 years on the island in January. The construction of a firing range at Camp Blaz located along the island’s northern pressed on despite protests from local residents against the destruction not only of natural habitats deemed vital for the medicinal practices of the Chamorro culture, but also sacred sites and burial grounds.

“Today, the massive buildup of military infrastructure and personnel currently being undertaken in Guam has negatively impacted natural and cultural resources,” Won Pat-Borja said. “Harm is also being inflicted upon the political, social, and economic wellbeing of the people of Guam, particularly the indigenous CHamoru people of Guam whose historical dispossession continues today.”

“Given these impacts and the greater target placed on Guam and its people,” he added, “the local community has demanded transparency, accountability, and a greater level of decision-making power in military activities in Guam.”

Given the stakes for the island, Won Pat-Borja said a number of locals have appealed for an easing of the geopolitical situation between Beijing and Washington, saying “many in the community have also called for de-escalation and diplomacy between China and the US , and understandings of Guam’s role in US national security are being increasingly scrutinized by the local community.”

“Nevertheless,” he added, “the confines of unincorporated territory status continue to enable the US military to do as it pleases in Guam with no consent from and little regard for the people who call it home.”

These tensions, which have risen intermittently over the course of decades and are cresting once again, have led to calls for a new contract between Guam and the US government, one that would give the island a greater say in managing its own affairs.

The Commission on Decolonization, established in 1997 by Guam’s legislature to address these calls, has set out to educate residents on three potential paths for self-determination: statehood, independence and free association.

With tensions high between the US and China, one small island in the Pacific stands as a nuclear-capable front line in what has the potential to be one of the devastating wars the world has ever seen.

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