As U.S. Grows Guam Presence to Deter China, Wary Locals Are Denied A Choice

With tensions high between the U.S. and China, one small island in the Pacific stands as a nuclear-capable front line in what has the potential to be one of the devastating wars the world has ever seen.

As the U.S. military expands its already dominating presence, however, not everyone who calls Guam home wants any part in such a conflict. And yet, the Indigenous people living on the shrinking two-thirds of the island not already consumed by U.S. military bases have little to no choice in the matter.

"There are many in the community who are critical of the role that Guam, as an unincorporated Territory, is forced to play in the posturing and aggression occurring between China and the United States," Melvin Won Pat-Borja, executive director of the Guam government's Commission on Decolonization, told Newsweek.

"As a Territory," he added, "Guam's relationship with the federal government, and thus the Department of Defense, is marked by consultation and not consent."

The complex history between the U.S. and Guam, an island located some 6,000 miles from California, began with another war, one waged between the U.S. and Spain in 1898. The U.S. seized Guam on the way to wresting control of the Philippines, which also remained a U.S. territory until gaining independence in 1946 after World War II, during which both Guam and the Philippines were invaded by the Japanese Empire.

"Guam and its people have a long and complicated history with war," Won Pat-Borja said. "During WWII, it was one of the few U.S.-held territories occupied by enemy forces. The brutal occupation by Imperial Japan lasted from 1941 until the retaking of the island by the U.S. in 1944."

Since then, Guam has played a critical role in a number of U.S. wars, from Korea to Vietnam and even more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East, during which U.S. bases on the island have helped to facilitate the movement of equipment and personnel. But this U.S. military footprint has also put a target on the island's roughly 160,000 residents, as directly evidenced in 2017 when North Korea began openly threatening Guam amid a war of words with the U.S.

Won Pat-Borja said that, as a result, "the threat of war and even nuclear war have become a somewhat normal part of daily life here in Guam." This threat has only further set in for the island's population amid rising U.S.-China tensions.

"Now, with escalated tensions in our region," Won Pat-Borja said, "the people of Guam are again facing threats of missile strikes by China and experiencing the hyper-militarization of their homeland by the United States."

US, Marines, participate, in, Cope, North, Guam
A still from a clip shared by the Pentagon on March 15 promotes the participation of the U.S. Marine Corps alongside the Australian Air Force in Exercise Cope North 23 at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. U.S. Department of Defense

Locals, the majority of whom trace their ancestry to the native Chamorro people, also spelled CHamoru, do not have to speculate as to the U.S. intentions for Guam in the current trajectory of geopolitical frictions in the Pacific.

Speaking in December 2021, the deputy head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka proclaimed that "Guam is a place where our combat power will aggregate and congregate and from which it will emanate."

"From there we send a powerful strategic message to our allies and our adversaries that the United States has invested in this region—we prioritize the Indo-Pacific," Sklenka said at the time.

General Sklenka's statement comes months after a letter signed by three U.N. special rapporteurs issued a historic rebuke to the U.S. government over "the impacts of the United States of America's increased military presence in Guam and the failure to protect the indigenous Chamorro people from the loss of their traditional lands, territories, and resources; serious adverse environmental impacts; the loss of cultural artifacts and human remains; as well as the denial of the right to free, prior and informed consent and self-determination."

Today, Guam is recognized as one of only 17 "non-self-governing territories" recognized by the U.N. and international experts regularly express concern over the island's relationship with the U.S.

But the militarization has only intensified with the U.S. Marines opening their first new base in 70 years on the island in January. The construction of a firing range at Camp Blaz located along the island's northern pressed on despite protests from local residents against the destruction not only of natural habitats deemed vital for the medicinal practices of the Chamorro culture, but also sacred sites and burial grounds.

"Today, the massive buildup of military infrastructure and personnel currently being undertaken in Guam has negatively impacted natural and cultural resources," Won Pat-Borja said. "Harm is also being inflicted upon the political, social, and economic wellbeing of the people of Guam, particularly the indigenous CHamoru people of Guam whose historical dispossession continues today."

"Given these impacts and the greater target placed on Guam and its people," he added, "the local community has demanded transparency, accountability, and a greater level of decision-making power in military activities in Guam."

Given the stakes for the island, Won Pat-Borja said a number of locals have appealed for an easing of the geopolitical situation between Beijing and Washington, saying "many in the community have also called for de-escalation and diplomacy between China and the U.S., and understandings of Guam's role in U.S. national security are being increasingly scrutinized by the local community."

"Nevertheless," he added, "the confines of unincorporated Territory status continue to enable the U.S. military to do as it pleases in Guam with no consent from and little regard for the people who call it home."

These tensions, which have risen intermittently over the course of decades and are cresting once again, have led to calls for a new contract between Guam and the U.S. government, one that would give the island a greater say in managing its own affairs.

The Commission on Decolonization, established in 1997 by Guam's legislature to address these calls, has set out to educate residents on three potential paths for self-determination: statehood, independence and free association.

Statehood see Guam follow in the steps of Hawaii, which was seized by a pro-U.S. coup in 1893 and annexed in 1898 before becoming a state nearly six decades later in 1959. Independence would allow Guam to become a sovereign nation as the Philippines did in 1946. Free association would also pave the way for independence but as part of the Compact of Free Association with the U.S. that currently exists between fellow Pacific island states the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

In any case, the goal is for the island's government to hold a plebiscite, or referendum, but a 2019 court ruling found that such a vote would violate the Fifteenth Amendment.

The Fifteenth Amendment, established in 1870 in the wake of the U.S. Civil War, prohibits the federal government and states from denying or limiting the right of U.S. citizens to vote "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude" and was actually adopted to enfranchise a previously excluded group of potential voters, African American men. In the context of Guam, however, the fact that the planned vote would be limited to "Native Inhabitants of Guam" was deemed to be "an impermissible racial classification."

As it stands, Won Pat-Borja said that the "Government of Guam lacks any type of sovereignty over the affairs within the island, and there is a notable absence of equity in the local government's relationship to the U.S. federal government."

"The bottom line is that our current status is unsustainable and even detrimental to the well-being of the island and its people," he added.

When it comes to Washington, however, Won Pat-Borja explained that "the federal government has proven to be an obstacle to meaningful change" on a number of instances, including an attempt to achieve commonwealth status in the 1980s that was crushed by the U.S. government's refusal to include a "mutual consent" clause that would have given Guam some degree of sovereignty in their relationship.

Map, US, bases, Guam
A map published in a 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows selected U.S. military installations in Guam. The U.S. Department of Defense owns additional land on the island. U.S. Government Accountability Office

In Washington itself, Guam's voice is limited to the presence of a non-voting lawmaker, an office currently held by at-large Representative James Moylan, a former Guam legislator who last November became the first Republican elected to represent the territory in the House since 1990.

He too believes the island deserves a greater say on matters that ultimately concern the well-being of its people.

"I believe that territories continue to be treated in an inequitable manner, and this is what our office will continue to advocate for during our tenure here in Congress," Moylan told Newsweek. "I believe that an improved status needs to be obtained in the relationship with the federal government, and this should include the ability to have a voting member in Congress in the near future."

He also felt that his constituents deserved the opportunity to hold a plebiscite on a preferred path toward self-determination, "which is why I encourage our local government to identify a plan, and if federal support is needed, I will advocate for it."

And though Moylan said that, personally, he "would select statehood" as his option should such a vote be held today, he argued that "the current level of rights afforded are not sufficient when it comes to our relationship with the federal government, and all we seek is a voice equivalent to any other member of the House of Representatives."

This voice has become particularly sought after at a time when officials in both Beijing and Washington have discussed the prospect of an all-out clash between the world's top two powers, even if both sides say they actively seek to avoid such a confrontation. Recent years have even seen the emergence of a Chinese nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missile that various media reports have referred to as "Guam Killer."

As such, many living on the island are also looking to avoid this conflict out of self-preservation.

"I think it's fair to say that any jurisdiction within the Indo-Pacific region should be concerned in the event the conflict between the U.S. and China were to escalate into something greater than it is today," Moylan said. "While we are certainly confident in the capabilities of the U.S. armed services in protecting Guam and other islands in the Pacific theater, it is still an issue we certainly hope we don't have to face today or in the future."

Moylan also acknowledged that "there are concerns within our native population that a target has been placed within our region," but he noted that, "at the same time we are an island of resiliency and patriotism, with among the highest number of enlistments per capita throughout the nation."

"Our office will continue to be responsive to our constituents who want to share their concerns, and will always bring those concerns to the table of the Armed Services Committee, to ensure that the protection of Guam," Moylan added, "both inside and outside the fence are paramount and prioritized."

At the forefront of grappling with these issues on the island itself is Governor Lou Leon Guerrero, who became the first woman to head the government in Guam when she was first elected in 2018.

Speaking to Newsweek, her chief advisor for military and regional affairs, Carlotta Leon Guerrero, and the executive director of her Community Defense Liaison Office, Vera Topasna, also responded to the ongoing U.S. military buildup on their island amid rising tensions in the region, saying, "We are very concerned."

Recalling Guam's difficult history with war as well as more recent developments from North Korean missile threats, the advent of China's "Guam Killer" and even flights from suspected high-altitude Chinese spy balloons over the island, they emphasized that "conflicts are not new to us" and that "the people of Guam understand how important it is to stay vigilant and resilient in order to protect our way of life and the livelihoods of generations to come."

Carlotta Leon Guerrero and Vera Topasna also drew a link between the mounting U.S. presence and the growing tensions over the disputed island of Taiwan located 1,700 miles away, far closer than the 4,000-mile distance to the nearest U.S. soil in Hawaii.

"We are concerned about the need to safeguard and stabilize Pacific governments amidst all the growing tension caused by the posturing of major global powers in regards to Taiwan," the governor's advisers said. "Our struggle for self-determination must continue irrespective of the geopolitical tensions that swirl around us."

But in the midst of these developments, the two argued that the governor's office has been in regular engagement with U.S. forces through the establishment of working groups on issues such as the effects of Camp Blaz's new firing range on the island's aquifer and mitigating the effects of U.S. military housing accommodations on the local community.

"We believe the Governor is responsive to the local voices concerned with the impact the buildup is having on our communities, culture, and environment," Carlotta Leon Guerrero and Vera Topasna said.

U.S. Joint Region Marianas, which supports installation management for all U.S. military components in Guam along with the rest of the Northern Mariana Islands, leads efforts to engage with representatives of Guam's civilian population. Navy Rear Admiral Benjamin Nicholson, who serves as commander of Joint Region Marianas and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command senior military official for Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, said this work was vital to his mission.

"Joint Region Marianas and the Department of Defense remain in regular communication and close coordination with the Government of Guam (GovGuam) and local stakeholders," Nicholson told Newsweek. "There are many opportunities and avenues for public participation in decisions, community conversations and productive dialogue. The input, partnership, and support we receive from the people of Guam is important to us and vital to our ability to defend the U.S. Territory of Guam and the national interests in the region."

"We abide by both federal and territorial laws and regulations," he added, "and we work closely with local authorities and institutions such as the Guam State Historic Preservation Office and Guam Environmental Protection Agency to ensure our alignment with the island community."

Guam, Commission, on, Decolonization, presentation, to, students
Members of the Guam Commission on Decolonization present to students at the University of Guam's Critical Thinking course in this photo uploaded March 9. Guam Commission on Decolonization

Such consultation is carried out under the auspices of the Civil-Military Coordination Council, formed in 2010 as mechanism to gather representatives of the U.S. military, other U.S. federal agencies and members of the Guam government.

"Guam is vitally important to national defense," he added, "and we are extremely grateful for the incredible support we receive from the community and the immense patriotism demonstrated."

Reached for comment, a Pentagon spokesperson also referred Newsweek to the latest National Defense Strategy, released in November of last year.

The document, which the Pentagon says "places a primary focus on the need to sustain and strengthen U.S. deterrence against China," does make specific reference to Guam and the U.S. commitment to defend it, stating that "an attack on Guam or any other U.S. territory by any adversary will be considered a direct attack on the United States, and will be met with an appropriate response."

"Additionally, Guam is home to key regional power projection platforms and logistical nodes, and is an essential operating base for U.S. efforts to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region," the document reads. "The architecture for defense of the territory against missile attacks will therefore be commensurate with its unique status as both an unequivocal part of the United States as well as a vital regional location."

"Guam's defense, which will include various active and passive missile defense capabilities," it adds, "will contribute to the overall integrity of integrated deterrence and bolster U.S. operational strategy in the Indo-Pacific."

In the meantime, other community leaders in Guam dedicated to the issue of self-determination fight on in hopes of effecting actual change.

Among them is Michael Lujan Bevacqua, curator of the Guam government's Department of Chamorro Affairs' Guam Museum and co-chair of the Independent Guåhan activist movement. He described the relationship between the U.S. military presence and the local community in Guam as "complicated."

Bevacqua told Newsweek that statehood has been "generally the most popular option" among those seeking self-determination for Guam, but he argued that "there are a small number of people who desire independence with the removal of the bases in mind." He noted that "more are simply critical of the presence, but do not necessarily want them removed, as they provide money into the local economy and Guam has incredibly high rates of military service."

And yet the current situation has exacerbated concerns regarding this presence, especially as he identified "a clear lack of engagement" from the U.S. government.

"The current U.S. military expansion and buildup in Guam has led to primarily younger people developing increasing frustration and anger with regards to how the construction has negatively impacted cultural significant sites and also led to the desecration of the remains of ancient Chamorus," Bevacqua said. "There is a majority of people who feel like the military needs to be more accountable to the local community and local government, and an increasing number of people feel that decolonization or the changing of Guam's political status is a path to make that possible."

He advocates for independence as opposed to any option that would bring Guam closer to the U.S. because he believes that "the problem with colonization is not that enough of 'America' has been given to the colonies, it is that the people in the colonies, especially the indigenous people in cases like Guam, have never been given a genuine opportunity to determine what they might want for their future."

And, "in terms of the conflict with China," Bevacqua said that "it reinforces the realities of being the tip of America's spear, or a strategically valuable asset on the other side of the world."

But this relationship does not go both ways.

"After all," he added, "the tip of the spear is the first thing to get bloody, and regardless of what affections a warrior may have for their spear, they usually have no compunctions about sacrificing the spear to save themselves."