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Caught between empires

As long as it remains a US territory, Guam is bound to keep its status as the tip of America’s spear


By Michael Lujan Bevacqua


What does it mean to live in a place called the “tip of America’s spear?” This is something that Guam has been called frequently in recent decades, whether by politicians, military commanders or think tanks. It is a nickname defined by the strategic value of Guam to the United States.


If one imagines the U.S. as a warrior facing Asia, there is a long line of bases that extends west across the Pacific, almost like the shaft of a long weapon. Guam, as the westernmost U.S. base, is like the tip. Something brandished against potential threats on the continent.


Because of Guam’s location and its military value, we who call it home are used to both wars and rumors of wars. In recent years, there has been increasing tension in the region between the United States and its potential rivals, whether it be Russia, North Korea or China. As such, Guam appears in news reports, in strategic studies and in the speeches of admirals as something that the U.S. will use against others or as something that might be caught in the middle of any conflict.


Given these risks, these dangers, one might assume that issues such as decolonization, the changing of Guam’s political status to something more equitable, such as statehood, free association or statehood, might be untimely. This is something that the United States has argued in the past when the issue of Guam’s territorial status or the lack of rights for its people came up,. The response has at times been that, due to threats in the region, it is not the right time for any change to the political status quo.


The Fanohge Coalition, a diverse network of 40 community groups, non-profits, and small businesses, decided to address this question in a recent forum called “Caught Between Empires: A Push for Peace and Security in the Marianas.”


Formed following the Fanohge March for CHamoru Self-Determination in 2019, the coalition exists to educate the island community about the importance of protecting the rights of the Chamoru people and pushing for political status change for Guam.


To lead this conversation around security and peace in our region, the think tank, Pacific Center for Island Security or PCIS, was invited.


On May 12, more than 100 people gathered in the gallery at the Hilton Hotel as PCIS board members Dr. Robert Underwood, Dr. Ken Gofigan Kuper and Leland Bettis took questions offered by different groups within the Fanohge Coalition.


PCIS was formed in 2021 and is an action-orientated research institute that hopes to anchor island perspectives in the cacophony of geopolitical posturing in the Western Pacific. In the case of Guam, what this means is discussing things such as security for Guam, not through the mindset of Guam as a strategic asset or chess piece, a pawn on the board of competing interests, but rather to center Guam or other islands in the analysis.


Most strategic analyses of the situation in Asia are built on the notion of “security” as being something whereby Guam is used or lost in a conflict. This is because the conceptualization presupposes the security in question as being that of the United States’ or of China’s. But PCIS asks us to consider what security would look like for Guam, if we focused not on the diplomatic posturing of either country, but instead looked to the interests of Guam and those who call it home.


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During the forum, Dr. Underwood responded to the question of changing Guam’s status given the potential conflicts in the region,. He argued that this is actually the perfect moment. Given the different competing powers around Guam and the military value to the U.S., there will likely never be a moment when Guam isn’t being pulled or pushed in one direction or another. Changing Guam’s political status to something where it is genuinely self-governing is important to make sure that, given the fluid and sometimes contentious reality around us, it is essential that we have some sort of seat at the tables where consequential decisions are being made.


Without the element of self-governance, Guam will continue to persist in the same reality dictated by its status as the tip of America’s spear. Where rather than like other countries in the Pacific who are using diplomacy and negotiating with countries like China or the U.S. in the name of their own interests, Guam’s future will be determined primarily by its military value.


In order to help get us to this point, Dr. Kuper offered a reminder that, even though Guam may want to be involved in these diplomatic talks and negotiations in our region, we may not be ready. He highlighted the need for Guam to train diplomats and others who can take up the interests of the island in regional, national and global conversations.


Both Kuper and Underwood pointed out that the development of a program to train negotiators or diplomats is something that will pay dividends regardless of whether Guam becomes independent, freely associated or a state. All will require that Guam be able to effectively assert its interests and be ready to contend with opposing parties who will be aggressively defending their own.


As Guam has been a territory for so long, we aren’t used to seeing the value or need for training individuals who can fight for Guam’s needs.


As a territory, most in Guam have become accustomed to simply accepting that whatever is good for America must also be good for Guam. Especially when it comes to issues of military and security, we may not be used to thinking for ourselves, but given the escalating dangers in the region around us, it is more essential than ever that we do.




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