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A Pacific Island Agenda for Guahan in the 21st century



These Islands By Robert Underwood

One of the oddest slogans ever used in Guahan was “America in Asia.” Of course, it was an attempt to generate economic interest by proclaiming simultaneously that Guahan was American and Asian.


The first assertion is arguable and the second one is laughable. We could be America in Asia but only if Americans saw us that way. I doubt that many think of Guam as America except in a territorial sense. Guam is owned by America. No one thinks of us as being in Asia; we are near but so close can still be pretty far.


This rivals the other questionable slogan, which is “Guam, Where America’s Day Begins.” The slogan was borrowed by tourism promoters in Guahan from Wake Island. Wake is just this side of the international dateline, so they are still where America’s day really begins. But there is no Wake Visitors Bureau to spend money on that promotion. Geographical positioning and regional identity matter a lot.


We are important to the United States primarily for our geographical positioning “near” but not quite Asia. This is why we are home to the power projection capacity of American military might. This is why the military wants to make sure that we understand that anti-missile defense in Guahan is more than just protecting military assets.


Guahan is part of America in the latest strategic argument so we become part of “homeland defense.” I wonder how many Americans consider Guahan as the initial part of the American homeland facing strategic competitors in Asia. Which do you think is of more serious concern in Washington D.C., the defense of the American homeland in Hagatna or the survivability of military assets located in Guahan in case of conflict?


Being part of Pacific island networks offers an alternate path. Perhaps there is no economic advantage to proclaiming that Guahan is the center of Micronesia or that we are part of a network of Pacific islands. Like proclaiming Guahan to be the beginning of the American Day or America’s foothold in Asia, this requires some serious thought. Americans don’t normally think of Guahan as the epitome of anything American and most couldn’t find us on a map. In fact, many of us can’t find us on a map.


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If you think Americans have a hard time digesting Guahan as part of the nation, let’s consider how Micronesians and other Pacific islanders think about Guahan as fellow Pacific islanders. It is fashionable and geographically accurate to say that CHamorus are Micronesians. It is a blow on behalf of island solidarity to proclaim this identification in discussing social relationships here in Guahan. Many young CHamorus like to proclaim their Micronesian-ness.


There may a bump in the road in matters like giving “CHamoru land” to Kosraean and Chuukese communities in Guahan. This surfaced last month at the Guam Legislature when some CHamorus opposed giving or leasing public land for cultural centers for these two “Micronesian” communities in Guahan. This also begs the question, “Do Micronesians think CHamorus are Micronesians?” It is similar to the question “Do Americans think CHamorus are American?” There are many young CHamorus who want to affirm the former and are ambivalent about the latter, even if they are U.S. citizens.


Fundamentally, this is the kind of issue that needs policy direction, leadership and risk-taking. Does Guahan want to be thought of as a formal part of Micronesian networks? Does Guahan seriously want to join the Pacific Island Forum? Is there room in this new direction to still be thought of as America in Asia? In these new networks, will there be serious attention and partnerships, or only as needed, when Uncle Sam’s initiatives create new conditions or tensions?


The only time Micronesian political entities get together is when they want to jointly express their concerns about United States policy issues. It seems ironic because each territory and freely associated state has a legal and somewhat subservient position to Washington D.C. But the territories and the freely associated states don’t normally talk to each other except when something serious comes up in their interactions with U.S. policymakers. All roads to Micronesian interaction seem to run through Washington D.C.


To date, they can only get together to express their mutual “disappointment with” or “concern” about American policy initiatives. I doubt whether the negotiators of the freely associated states are comparing notes on their compact discussions with the U.S. government. It seems like a no-brainer since they are all negotiating with the same “foreign government.” In fact, they are all negotiating with the same negotiator.


Now that Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero has won re-election and Speaker Therese Terlaje was the highest vote-getter in the Guam Legislature, these two women are at the pinnacle of their power and influence. They should consider working together on an issue that hasn’t divided them. Although they are both Democrats, they have some differences of opinion on approaches to the pandemic, public lands and building a hospital.


I hope they can work on an entirely new initiative that neither campaigned on. I believe they can and should work on a 21st-century regional initiative titled “Guahan in the 21st Pacific Century.” The first step would be to organize an advisory group of knowledgeable individuals in regional matters from a cultural, economic and political perspective. This is not about improving community relationships in Guahan, as important as those are.


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This is about Guahan’s future in the Pacific. The group should get together and propose a comprehensive agenda for Pacific island participation that will enhance our island’s portfolio in the issues that threaten Pacific island existence, harmony and autonomy in the 21st century.


If it isn’t a broad-based initiative involving Guahan’s political leadership and major institutions, it will end up being another failed initiative with a glowing title.


Remember “America in Asia” or the “Guamanian Dream” or even Gov. Felix Camacho proclaiming that his “legacy” would be changing the island’s name to Guahan? Although these initiatives generated some headlines, the lack of clarity, support or action has placed these ideas in the historical landfill of gubernatorial plans. They sort of fizzled out with the end of the terms of the governors that conceptualized these initiatives.


I am sure that there will be people in Washington D.C. and perhaps Beijing and Tokyo who will take notice. They should. If the task force is bold enough, it will generate “concern” and, perhaps, “opposition” in various capitals outside the Pacific.


I only hope that Pacific island capitals will be supportive. We have much to learn from each other and we have something to offer each other. I hope that such an initiative would be supported in Suva, Koror, Majuro and Port Moresby.


Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to anacletus2010@gmail.com.



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