Caught in the Crossfire: the Costs of the United States’ Rivalry with China

DJ Quezada, Editor-in-Chief

If you ask many Americans what the closest American city is to Seoul, South Korea or Beijing, China, many would answer with Honolulu, Hawai’i, or Seattle, Washington. These are, in a way, correct– Seattle is the closest city on the US mainland, and Honolulu is the closest US city overall. Neither of these, however, are the closest. That honor is held by Hagåtña, the capital city of Guam. This 200 square-mile island in the North Pacific sits 2000 miles from the coast of East Asia, and its position makes it one of the most important assets in the United States military’s strategic portfolio. The military’s presence on the island is no secret. The Department of Defense manages close to a third of the island’s land area, including the entire north shore of the island, where Andersen Air Force Base serves as a primary base for the B-1 Lancer–one of the Air Force’s largest long-range bombers and a critical facet of the United States’ ability to project power in the Western Pacific and East Asia. With the United States clearly positioning itself to take a much more active role militarily in East Asia–a proposition that necessarily brings increased attention to Guam’s strategic advantage–it is critical to understand how the United States’ current relationship with Guam exemplifies an unequal framework that denies Guamanians influence over the United States’ military policy that consumes the island’s land and places it in far more direct danger of attack than any location on the mainland.

This island’s outsized importance to US militarism is especially problematic considering the near total lack of democratic input Guamanians have in the government that uses a third of their island to house its military installations. The 168,000 Guamanians have no vote in presidential elections, have no representation in the Senate, and in the House of Representatives are represented by a single, nonvoting delegate. Guamanians, most of whom are CHamoru–the original inhabitants of the island–were only granted American citizenship in 1950, and do not have full protection under the Constitution due to Guam’s status as an unincorporated territory of the United States. This “unincorporated” status is a result of the United States Supreme Court’s “insular cases,” particularly the case Downes v. Bidwell, a 1901 case that decided US territories that were not “incorporated” (i.e. on a pathway to statehood) enjoyed only the Constitutional rights that Congress granted them. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Henry Billings Brown argued that this denial of rights was necessary because “those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible…” One of Chief Justice Brown’s other famously racist decisions, Plessy v. Ferguson, has thankfully been overturned. Bidwell, however, remains the law of the land– enshrining Guam’s disenfranchisement in the present day.

This circuitous and flagrantly racist legal status thrust upon this island has left Guamanians few avenues through which to voice opposition to American military presence and its negative effects on the island. In the early days of the Bush administration, the Pentagon under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld began a massive buildup of military presence in Guam as they transitioned away from relying on bases in the Philippines and Japan for the military’s presence in East Asia. One diplomat contributing to a 2004 New York Times article gave a quite simple rationale for this move– writing that “we don’t want to be somewhere where they don’t want us, where they can throw us out” (emphasis is mine.) The pivot to Guam was made explicitly out of a desire to insulate American power projection capabilities from the controversies that enveloped bases situated in foreign countries: Subic Air Base in the Philippines was decommissioned in 1992 after the Philippine Senate refused to renew the US’s lease, and bases in Okinawa were reduced in capacity due to pressure from activists campaigning against the widespread environmental destruction and sexual assault allegations stemming from the base. 

These very same concerns have been mirrored in Guam during the most recent round of base expansion beginning in the 2010s, particularly those relating to the environmental impact of the military’s presence. In the 2009 leadup to increased construction to expand existing bases on the island, the Pentagon published a legally-mandated 10,000 page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)– but only gave Guamanians the minimum 45 day public comment period required by law to review the enormous document for environmental concerns. In response to this, Guamanian activists like schoolteacher Melvin Won Pat-Borja organized to win an extension to the public comment period and highlighted the military’s plans to turn several important cultural areas such as cemeteries and fishing spots into live-fire proving grounds for the aircraft and personnel based on the island–proposals that would endanger both the environmental integrity of the land and its unique cultural heritage. 

All of this is to say that with increased calls from both sides of the Congress to confront China with military means, there needs to be a far more thorough conversation of who this rhetoric places in the line of fire. This is not speculation, either. In August of 2017, in the throes of a diplomatic crisis between Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump, the North Korean leader threatened a missile strike on Guam– a proposition which understandably terrified many islanders. As it stands right now, the average mainland American certainly faces negligible risk of witnessing a direct attack on their shores, but for Guamanians the threat is far more acute, particularly due to their geographic proximity and symbolism as a reminder of American power in the Western Pacific. Proponents of increased military involvement in East Asia should have to seriously account for the fact that their brinkmanship places the citizens of otherwise uninvolved locales such as Guam in the middle of a trifecta of threats: the loss of their sovereignty from increased incursion on their land, environmental degradation from the use of their land as proving grounds and dumping sites, and the direct threat of military action by other countries engaged in conflict with the United States. All of which, despite decades of protest by Guamanian activists against their fundamentally unequal relationship within the United States, remain largely powerless to defend against. 

End Note: although I have done my best to faithfully represent the movement for decolonization in Guam in this piece, I feel that it is paramountly important to center the voices and perspectives of CHamoru people in Guam itself when discussing topics such as decolonization. If you would like to read more on this topic from CHamoru activists themselves, the works of Melvin Won Pat-Borja, Monaeka Flores, Angel Santos, and Michael Bevecqua are excellent places to start. 

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Brooke, James. “Looking for Friendly Overseas Base, Pentagon Finds It Already Has One.” The New York Times, April 7, 2004, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/07/us/looking-for-friendly-overseas-base-pentagon-finds-it-already-has-one.html.

Justia Law. “Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901).” Accessed November 6, 2021. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/182/244/.

Gelardi, Chris. “Guam: Resisting Empire at the ‘Tip of the Spear,’” November 2, 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/world/guam-resistance-empire/.

Luria, Elaine. “Opinion | Congress Must Untie Biden’s Hands on Taiwan.” Washington Post. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/11/elaine-luria-congress-biden-taiwan/.

Mohan, C. Raja. “A New Pivot to Asia.” Foreign Policy (blog). Accessed November 10, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/15/biden-china-asia-allies-strategy-pivot/.“North Korea Threats Unsettle Guam Islanders.” BBC News, August 9, 2017, sec. Asia. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40871854.

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