Guam and the Blue Continent: Some awkward questions
Pacific island solidarity is at the core of Pacific island aspirations for the future. Going back to an earlier time when leaders spoke about the “Pacific Way” to this century when we talk about the “Blue Continent,” there is a sense that something fundamental could be tapped to make Pacific islands work together as a force to be reckoned with in the world.
They could also work to protect themselves from external influences, which has marked their history since the arrival of external powers centuries ago.
Of course, economic challenges and potential ecological Armageddon brought on by climate change has intensified this conversation about Pacific islands working together. There are regional organizations like the Pacific Island Forum and the Pacific Community which attempt to generate broader strategies in order to make this conversation come alive.
But as a specific plan for the future, the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent was endorsed in 2019 during a Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu. The actual strategy was formalized at a PIF meeting in July of this year.
The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent outlines some core principles and high-minded statements. “The strategy is shaped by the region’s historical, current and evolving context and identities where and how the countries and the territories of the region will work together as the Blue Pacific continent.” This offers a path for the territories to become involved although I am not quite sure in what context and in which structures.
If we in Guahan are part of the Blue Pacific Continent, will we be incorporated into the discussion and planning? Or will we be unincorporated? If we are not included but treated as an appendage of the Blue Continent by our Pacific brothers and sisters, it seems suspiciously similar to the “unincorporated” territorial status we have with the United States. Unincorporated by the colonial power and by our ostensible Pacific brothers and sisters is not a comfortable place to be.
This awkward situation is further exacerbated by the Partners in the Blue Pacific Initiative of five non-Pacific island nations. In anticipation of the adoption of the 2050 Strategy, the United States, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom declared in June that they want to work “for more effective and efficient cooperation in support of Pacific Island Priorities.” What prompted this sudden interest?
This effort was criticized by three academics who wrote that this initiative is riding “roughshod over established regional processes.” Greg Fry, Tarcisius Kabutaulaka and Terrence Wesley-Smith stated in the Development Policy blog that this effort “hides a deeper geopolitical purpose.” It is essentially a response to Chinese initiatives in the region.
Where does this leave Guahan or the Northern Marianas? Members of the Pacific Island Forum were invited to the highly publicized Pacific Island Country Summit at the White House. Of course, this was done against the backdrop of the Compacts of Free Association negotiations with our Micronesian neighbors as well as dealing with Chinese strategic initiatives.
French Polynesia and New Caledonia were afforded seats at the summit as if they were independent nations. They are territories of France although they aren’t quite territories in the same way Guahan is in the United States system.
Guahan was given a kind of “observer” status through an invitation given to Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero. While she wasn’t accorded a status similar to the French territories, Guahan was the only U.S. territory invited to any of these meetings.
Gov. Leon Guerrero subsequently announced her interest in exploring Guahan membership in the Pacific Islands Forum. This was a bold step and she should be congratulated for thinking regionally in a way that many of Guahan’s leaders have not done in the past.
Almost immediately, there was some speculation that Gov. Leon Guerrero’s interest was being generated by the United States in order to have a kind of surrogate in the Forum. It was very dispiriting to me. There will be robust arguments about the role of territories in the Blue Pacific Continent and in the Forum. But to instantly dismiss Guahan’s bid as a surreptitious American effort is disappointing.
Since the French territories are afforded full membership, it seems awkward to deny U.S. territories the same status. There is that word again: awkward. If it is your fellow Pacific islanders who are thinking that Guahan can only be a pawn or a surrogate for the United States, it doesn’t say much about regard or respect for each other.
There is a coming test of the Pacific Way and the respect for all Pacific islands in the Blue Continent. How will our fellow islanders treat us? How will the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands treat Guahan’s possible membership? Will they support us? Will there be further speculation that this is the revenge of Micronesia and the Pacific islands north of the equator for passing over Micronesian leadership at the PIF earlier this year?
Well, those are all awkward questions. But they must be answered with clarity and with respect. If our Pacific brethren can only see us as a surrogate of the United States, then the Blue Continent has huge gaps and crevices. Maybe it is just a mirage on the horizon. I hope not.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.