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We are regional people. But from which region?



These Islands By Robert Underwood

The definition of “region” in the Pacific has always been an issue that divides as much as it unifies. How we define a geographic region doesn’t always intersect with economic, political or cultural regions.


Identification with a region like Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific seems to imply a given strategic orientation. Identifying as a part of Micronesia seems more like an identity issue rather than a simple geographical statement.


Where Guahan is located is often a troubling question many of us run into when we are visiting the United States. When asked to explain what Guahan is can also be equally troubling.


Many years ago, a contestant for Miss Guam in the Miss Universe competition was asked to describe Guam to an international audience. She replied, “It is far from San Francisco and it is hot.” True enough, but not exactly the kind of geographical or regional positioning we desire.


In actual distance, the closest island to Guahan is Rota, which is 91 kilometers away. The closest island outside of the Marianas is Lamotrek, which is 682 kilometers away. San Francisco is 9,331 kilometers away. I doubt that the average Guahan resident knows much about Lamotrek or even in which direction it lies from Guahan. We do know that San Francisco seems much closer. It certainly is more accessible. We could get there is 12 flying hours. Sailing to our island neighbors takes a few days in hazardous conditions.


The mass media’s use of the term “region” also lacks clarity. Reports of athletes winning regional awards could be stories about competition in Japan, Philippines or Hawaii. News stories about “regional migrants” are not referencing migration from the Philippines or Korea—they really mean Micronesian migrants. When we read about literature anthologies that feature regional writers, it is a good bet that this does not include China or Vietnam.


But there will be some who insist that the term “Micronesian” includes natives of the Marianas, who are, after all, in the geographic region of Micronesia. We must remain faithful to our indigenous identity in the Pacific in which CHamoru is a subset of Micronesian in the same way Yapese or Chuukese is.


But if we look deep enough, we find that Micronesia is a colonial term in which we are united only because we are “micro.” We are tiny, just a collection of dots on a map arranged by continent.


There are some definitions of the region that now seem outdated. For example, the “Pacific Rim,” which is hardly used anymore except in economic conversations. It was also the basis for the formation of the Asia Pacific Economic Forum. Chile and Brunei are members, but nobody from the middle of the rim is in this exclusive group of 17 members.


I used to tell people that the Pacific Rim is like a donut. The Pacific islands are in the hole in that donut. If there is no hole, there is no donut. I don’t know whether being a dot or a hole is more comforting.


We can assert our geographic and regional identity. Guahan is on the doorstep of Asia. Some want to say we are actually in Asia. This too is economically defined in the aspirational phrase, “Guam is America in Asia.” It simultaneously said two things that are open for discussion. Are we really America? Are we really in Asia? It was economically defined and I can appreciate that. Like APEC, it has nothing to do with culture or geographic proximity. It is about economic possibilities.


This leads us to the strategic definition of region. The United States organizes the world into combatant commands. In keeping with its superpower status, the world is organized around potential areas of conflicts and the organization of military power to deal with them. For decades, Guahan and the rest of the region (no matter how you define it) was part of Pacific Command in Honolulu of PACOM. There is an associated Department of Defense-sponsored think tank called the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. It is currently led by retired Admiral Pete Gumataotao, a proud son of Guahan.


Starting in the Trump administration, the term “Indo-Pacific” was used while “Asia Pacific” was used to describe the area of responsibility for PACOM. In fact, it is now formally the “Indo-Pacific Command”. For us locally, we grew up with the Commander Naval Forces Marianas or COMNAVMAR. This has been replaced with Joint Region Marianas. Either way, the Marianas is specifically referenced. I doubt that it is limited to us in its “area of responsibility.”


When we examine the cultural meaning, economic aspirations and strategic implications of our region, we have a lot of work to do. We could add the biogeographic examination of the region.


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Actually, scientists were using “Indo-Pacific” before the military strategists adopted the term. They divide the areas of the world into incoherent areas for analysis. “Indo-Pacific” means something to marine biologists, which admirals and generals may not know much about.


We are from Guahan. It was originally defined by the culture of its original inhabitants and its connections to nearby islands. Certainly, this includes all of the Marianas and perhaps places as near as Lamotrek or Puluwat.


The latecomers in our history, such as Spain, Asian countries and the United States, have decided for centuries who we are and in what region we live.


If self-determination is to mean anything, it must start with affirming our original regional connections and roots.

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 anacletus2010@gmail.com.



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