This tiny Pacific island has several nicknames. There is “the tip of the spear” because it is the closest US territory to potential hot spots in Asia, such as North Korea and the South China Sea.
There is “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier”, because the island is home to a huge air force base. And then there is “Fortress Pacific”, because of the huge military buildup that is planned to take place over the next decade.
But Guam’s population calls it by another name: Ours. And a sizable portion wants a real say in how it is run.
“This American territory is not enjoying democracy, where citizens can determine who their leader will be and what laws will be put upon them,” said Republican Governor Eddie Baza Calvo, who has called a vote for November on Guam’s political status.
A “decolonisation commission” is set to report to Calvo next month on whether to proceed with the plebiscite, which would give Guamanians three alternatives to their current status as a US territory. That status - shared by Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands - confers US citizenship on people born here but does not give them the right to vote in presidential elections or a voting representative in Congress.
The three alternatives under consideration are:
- Statehood, which would give Guam all the rights (and burdens) of being a state, albeit a very small one, with a population less than one-third that of Wyoming.
- Free association with administrative power, like Palau and the Marshall Islands.
- Independence, which would make Guam a (minuscule) sovereign state.
The vote would not be binding - only Congress can change Guam’s political status - but would be symbolic of the territory’s sentiment.
The issue has been simmering for years but returned to the political front burner with the Pentagon’s preparations to relocate thousands of troops stationed on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to here.
The US military presence on Okinawa has long been a source of contention in a prefecture that complains of being treated as a second-class citizen by Tokyo. But there are similar complaints on Guam, a small tropical island of only 160,000 people, which is already home to large air force and naval bases.
Pockets of fierce opposition to the initial plan formulated a decade ago to move 10,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam led the Defence Department to halve the number coming here.
“The prospect of the military buildup caused a crack in the facade of American-ness on this island,” said Michael Lujan Bevacqua, who teaches the indigenous Chamorro language at the University of Guam.
The issue of Guam’s political status is complicated. Some resent the US military presence but do not want to give up their American passports. Some want greater independence but want their taxes to stay here on the island, as they do now, rather than going into the federal coffers. Some fear the lack of opportunity if they could no longer travel freely to the mainland.
Almost $9 billion has been earmarked for the base expansion and support facilities, one-third of which will be moved from Japan.
The Pentagon has unlocked $309 million for the first phase of construction of the new Marine base, which will be built on existing military land lined with palm trees. Next door at the Andersen Air Force Base, where B-52 bombers were lined up on the runway this week, construction workers were building a new hangar that will be part of the expanded footprint.
But the buildup will be long and slow. The first wave of 2,500 Marines is expected here by 2022, with the remainder due by 2027.
A military socioeconomic impact assessment study found that the new base would create more than 3,000 full-time civilian jobs in 2021, and tax revenues to the Guam government would increase by about $40 million a year from 2028.
For his part, the governor said he would “gladly” pay federal taxes so that Guam could be a full-fledged state. “But anything is better than being an unincorporated territory,” Calvo said. “That’s just another word for colony.” South China Morning Post