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  • By Robert A. Underwood

Can they act in their own interest?

By Robert Underwood

Two events of international significance have potentially dramatic effects on these islands on both sides of the equator. The first is the “bloodless coup” in Samoa where the sitting Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailee Malielegaoi has refused to allow the incoming prime minister to be sworn in “regular order.”

The doors were locked and the anticipated new prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, was sworn in under a tent. I am sure that the heat was on in many different ways in the southern hemisphere.

As of yet, there is no bloodshed and the streets seem calm, but there is a constitutional crisis and a perceived threat to the rule of law. The refusal to accept defeat is a contagion that seems to be affecting lots of people including a significant number of Americans who have accepted the big lie of ex-President Trump.

Tuilaepa Sailee Malielegaoi and Fiame Naomi Mata’afa

Tuilaepa has been in office for 23 years and, according to some, has become increasingly authoritarian. But that is a charge easily made when those who are exercising power are your political opponents.

The second is the anticipated movement of Afghan refugees to Guahan as a result of the end date of American boots on the ground.

President Biden has announced that the United States is ending its military involvement in September of this year around the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Center.

As a result of that long involvement in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans have been employed by the U.S. government in a wide variety of positions. These include counter-terrorism activities and various covert levels of assistance to the United States. These individuals will be left in the balance as the Taliban increases their influence, which inevitably will follow the departure of American forces.

The impending evacuation of perhaps thousands of these friends needs a friendly place to land. Of course, Guahan has now become the favorite place for evacuating. Some local officials are putting out the welcome wagon while others are holding back, raising concerns about Covid-19.

Of course, local activists are asking if Guahan is being asked. The short answer is no. Unless you consider cursory conversations about cooperation, collaboration and contributing to the national purpose a request, the answer is clearly no.

Guahan’s strategic value will again be highlighted and the expected “hospitality” will be extended with many opportunities for local officials to expound on the value of Guahan to America in the Pacific.

The Hafa Adai spirit will live on. We have been to this movie before and we already know the ending. We will be left wondering whether it was worth the price of admission.

In the South Pacific, we are left wondering about the nature of China’s role in the Samoan constitutional crisis. China has no direct role except that the prime minister who refuses to leave has a $128 million port deal with China. The newly sworn-in Prime Minister Mata’afa pledged to cancel the deal. The Chinese involvement makes the strategic speculation run wild.

Added to this calculation are the political values of democracy and rule of law. The added irony of the Samoan situation is that Tuilaepa had previously castigated those who wanted Fiji to return quickly to the fold after their experience with military coups. He now seems to be impeding the orderly transfer of power on behalf of his political party entitled the Human Rights Protection Party.

Some of our Micronesian neighbors are demonstrating their independence and flexibility. President Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia has decried the failure to follow the “rule of law” and announced that the FSM will only recognize a government headed by Mata’afa. President Kabua of the Republic of the Marshalls issued a similar statement regarding the rule of law.

These two situations appear to have very little in common.


Guahan is a military base with no claim to sovereignty and is accorded every courtesy in every decision that is made somewhere else. Everything is okay as long as you don’t confuse courtesy with sovereignty.

Samoa has all the sovereignty in the world but is experiencing economic difficulties, which new power players are willing to assist with. Everything is okay as long as you don’t confuse money with friendship.

The island Pacific, both north and south, has strategic roles to play and challenges to work on.


Unfortunately for the island Pacific, there is no policy analysis vehicle that takes the “island” perspective as the starting point. There are no robust foreign ministries, major academic research institutes, or defense agencies that analyze what benefits can and should accrue to the island Pacific. Instead, the islands continue to be pawns in a larger game. Somebody is making decisions. They just don’t seem to be on-island.

Where are the Pacific island think tanks? There might be some in Australia and even in Hawaii. They just don’t seem to be in Hagatna or Apia. Maybe it is time to develop some.

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

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