top of page

Learning the language of linkage in the contested Pacific

These Islands By Robert Underwood

There are two items that should concern us in the Pacific island region. One, the ongoing crisis in the Taiwan Straits, which threatens Taiwan’s autonomy. China continues to rail against Taiwan and has used Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit as the reason for its expressions of hostility. The other is the U.S. government’s ongoing negotiation with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands on the renewal of economic provisions of the Compacts of Free Association.

At one level, they don’t appear to be directly connected. The linkage seems weak. At another level, everything is connected. Whether it is missile defense in Guahan, the COFA negotiations or the two cruisers (USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville) making their way between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, they are all connected. The cruiser activity was described by the US 7th Fleet as occurring in “waters where high seas, freedom of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law.”

Of course, it is an effort to send a message back to China for their July bluster about visits to Taiwan. The Chinese are watching the vessels carefully, ready to deal with any “provocation.” They have also ramped up some military drills.

All of this is in the wake of Speaker Pelosi’s visit. But her appearance is not the fundamental cause of this discordant time. It is the ambivalent policy of the United States. The U.S. has a one-China policy, which acknowledges that Taiwan is part of China. But there is the caveat that it can’t be absorbed back into China by force of arms.

The U.S. uses this caveat as a way to support an equivocal Taiwan policy. The U.S. supports Taiwan’s independence while acknowledging that it shouldn’t really be independent.

The Marshall Islands and Palau recognize Taiwan as a sovereign entity entitled to diplomatic relationships. At some level, this is facilitated by the United States, if not encouraged. The FSM recognizes China.

This discordant situation in Taiwan is matched in the Pacifc island region with the aggressive Chinese initiative to sign agreements with Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Both nations used to recognize Taiwan. After switching to China, they now have agreements to allow an unspecified presence in areas that stand between the United States and Australia.

The U.S. has tried to counter this effort with a high-profile virtual appearance by Vice President Kamala Harris in front of the Pacific Island Forum in July. A meeting between President Biden and Pacific island nations is being planned in Washington, D.C. in late September.

Part of the response to the increased presence of China in the Pacific islands and the growth of its naval forces and missile capabilities is to increase its military presence in Micronesia. This involves facilities in Palau and the FSM to match the continuing U.S. military presence in Kwajalein, the Marshall Islands.

Chinese influence is also present without formal government-to-government agreements. Chinese interests in the casino on Saipan attracted attention as a vehicle for Chinese influence as well as money laundering. The casino was closed by the pandemic, not by government action. The Chinese proposal for a mega resort in Yap has similar economic and political tentacles.

While the resort has not been built, Chinese influence appears to be strong in Yap. It may also have had a hand in the impeachment of Gov. Henry Falan in December 2021. Although the charges against the governor have nothing to do with the resort or China, it seems that supporters of the resort had a major hand in his ouster from office. Falan opposed the resort development. There seems to be a link.

Now we can come closer to home especially if you live near Mangilao. Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero has a high-profile plan to build a hospital in Mangilao on a military-held property. The land would be leased. In the meantime, the military is planning 19 mobile sites for missile defense activities. Cooperation on securing easements for the 19 sites and the hospital site are not directly connected, but there can and should be a linkage.

The missile defense sites, which are ostensibly designed to deal with the Chinese threat, are now generating wide-scale interest because of the highly visible nature of their presence in Guahan.

Adm. Ben Nicholson, commander of the Joint Region Marianas, earlier told us not to be alarmed— a public advisory that generated some alarm. The bells will be ringing in the community pretty soon.

The entire missile defense system is a very expensive proposition.

The Society of American Military Engineers has announced the Guam Industry Forum 2022 scheduled for Nov. 13-16. For a $815 registration fee, you will be able to attend the forum and do site visits. Forum planners state that “Guam and the Marianas as well as other Micronesian islands are experiencing the largest U.S. defense design, construction, supply and service initiatives in recent history.”

This is in response to the $11 billion initiative for contracts that will be let out over the next five years.

The connection between enhanced spending and increased tension is a linkage contractors understand. They will soon be learning all about Guahan, brushing up on their CHamoru phrases and looking for local partners to talk about sub-contracting. Many local companies and individuals will sign agreements that are unlikely to ever be implemented.

In the meantime, our island leaders have to brush up on the discourse of linkages, the fulcrum of power, and use all the leverage they have at their disposal. Otherwise, all of this will have passed them by while the main participants attend private meetings, lavish receptions and see each other on the golf course. Fore!

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

Subscribe to

our digital

monthly edition


bottom of page