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Life in the first-strike community

These Islands By Robert A. Underwood

The struggle over Micronesia has barely started. China’s initiatives in the broader Pacific region, naval presence near Guahan and provocative behavior in the Taiwan straits have added up to a heightened level of China-triggered anxiety in the island and the region.

The sentiment is palpable and exacerbated by currently circulating fake videos about a failed Chinese attack on Guam. This is in addition to the year-old video of the Guam Killer Chinese missile (DF-26) and another older video supposedly showing a Chinese Air Force plane attacking Andersen Air Force Base.

After typhoon Mawar, a neighbor dropped by to tell me that this is a prelude to the kind of destruction we face in a future conflict with China. We need to “harden” in order to deal with future disasters – natural or manmade. This is reflected in the discussion about “hardening” everything from power poles, to underground infrastructure and, of course, the island’s “defense” against Chinese attacks.

For some it seems seamless, but, in reality, it is a non sequitur. Even the typhoon was used by some individuals to draw attention to the Chinese threat.

This has certainly increased attention to the proposed missile defense system for Guam. As currently planned, this includes 20 separate sites including missile batteries as well as radar sites and ancillary activities.

There is a fair amount of confusion about what exactly is being contemplated. We are unsure whether the system works.

The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act required an independent study on the viability of the system. There is a fair amount of skepticism even within the Pentagon about the effectiveness of this “enhanced integrated system.”

The U.S. Senate’s version of NDAA recently included a “briefing on the potential for using modular microreactors in Guam.” The introduction of land-based nuclear energy into the island will certainly attract attention. This possibility has been discussed in some defense literature. The Pacific Center for Island Security (of which I am a member) alerted local media to this possibility a few weeks ago.

Local officials must openly deal with the confusion and attention surrounding all of this in a way that puts forward the best questions that require answers. It is the responsibility of the governor, the legislature and the congressional delegate to seek clarity. They are not required to advocate for or against the missile defense system or the military build-up as a concept. Their advocacy has to be devoted to putting information in the hands of the public. In this regard, they need to hold the Department of Defense’s feet to the fire. They have to be transparent and direct in their questioning and revealing the plans to the public.

As residents of this island, we are being asked to shoulder the burden of being a first-strike community. Other islands, such as the Northern Marianas, Palau or the Federated States of Micronesia, are designated as divert airfields and ports. Their role is to be the recovery point from the first strike and potential destruction of Guahan.

If we are being asked to be the first-strike community, our leaders have to demand an explanation about what this means. In a public conversation, defense planners need to clarify what is being required. The notion that these are classified matters is nonsensical. Classify the information on the movement of particular military assets and classify the information on weapons systems. But you don’t classify the nature of the potential destruction of the island.

We are being asked to comment on missile defense in a series of “scoping meetings.” If we are not armed with accurate and timely information about what the military has already scoped out in terms of land and requirements, then we are participating in those meetings just as part of a checklist that the military is required to fulfill before they build anything.

At the congressional level, there are some interesting initiatives. The movement of the Compacts of Free Association has to be completed in an unfriendly environment for spending. The proposed new economic packages under the compacts with Palau, the FSM and the Marshall Islands will cost the United States $7 billion over the next 20 years. Helping island nations, even the ones that the U.S. has an obligation to assist, is not high on the Republican agenda. Stoking fear of China as a rationale for assisting our island neighbors makes more sense.

The House Committee on Natural Resources has established an Indo-Pacific Task Force co-chaired by territorial delegates Rep. Amata Radewagen (Republican) of American Samoa, and Rep. Gregorio Sablan (Democrat) of the Northern Marianas. Guam’s delegate, Rep. Jim Moylan, is a member of the task force.


The first meeting in mid-June featured witnesses who emphasized that countering the Chinese threat was the main basis for helping the islands. The task force may hold another hearing in July and is slated to come to Guahan and the region in August.

At a broader regional level, Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, sponsored S.1220, titled “The U.S. and Pacific Islands Forum Partnership Act.” The legislation would authorize a U.S. envoy to the Pacific Island Forum. This is part of the growing attention to the Pacific, which is fueled by concerns over Chinese initiatives.

The United States has now discovered the PIF. I don’t know whether the sudden attention is welcomed by the PIF membership. Pacific islanders are ordinarily polite and may welcome the attention, especially if it is attached to funding of certain projects, most notably dealing with climate change.

Ordinarily, only independent nations can be members of PIF. Freely associated states are included, including the Cook Islands, whose free association with New Zealand is more entwined than those of the Micronesian entities.

The French territories are allowed to join, raising the question as to whether U.S. territories will be encouraged or discouraged from seeking membership. Who will support or oppose the inclusion of Guahan remains to be seen.

Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero earlier discussed the possibility of seeking PIF membership, but several observers viewed the announcement with suspicions. They saw a Trojan Horse for the U.S.

We are constantly told that we are the tip of the spear. In reality, we are the first-strike community, which is trying to make sense of a confusing and, sometimes, unfriendly world.

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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