Guam: America’s most important territory
This post will focus on Guam, and will likely be the last part in my series on the Caribbean and US territories. I might do a followup post down the road on why the US ought to care about what goes on in the Caribbean Sea, but that may be some time from now.
As I mentioned in my last post, Guam is a part of the Mariana Islands region, though it is its own separate territory. As with the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam was originally populated by an indigenous people called the Chamorros until colonization by the Spanish. Guam’s history followed more closely with American Samoa than the Northern Marianas, and was one of the prizes the US picked up in the Spanish-American War in 1898, while the Northern Mariana Islands went their own way under Japan’s control.
World War II and the Japanese occupation of Guam were very harsh on the islanders, with estimates of casualties at 10% of the total population. 1,000 people were reported killed by the Japanese during the occupation. After the US recovered control, Guam elected not to politically reunite with the Northern Marianas because the islanders had been loyal subjects of Japan through the war and had assisted Japan during the occupation of Guam. Today, Guam has a population of 161,785, and their seat of government is Hagatna. Their GDP is about $4.88 billion.
When writing this post, I expected to deliver you a tale of woe and sadness, and malfeasance and corruption. The story of many of the US territories in the last ten to fifteen years has been one of corruption and mismanagement. But actually, Guam is the one US territory that seems to be doing relatively well.
As with many of the other island economies, tourism is a critical sector in Guam. United Airlines is Guam’s largest private employer. 75% of the country’s tourism comes from Asia, especially Japan, but also Korea. Much like the Caribbean Islands prosper when the US prospers, so too does Guam prosper when Japan and Korea prospers. Guam’s tourism industry has been challenged due to issues such as downturns in Japan and Korea, the SARS scare, and natural disasters, and the 2008 economic crisis. This is similar to the issues most Caribbean islands face. Currently, Guam’s tourism sector is on the upswing, though as with the Caribbean, the regeneration of the sector has been sluggish.
More importantly, though, Guam’s economy is bolstered because of US military spending. Guam is probably the United States’ most important strategic asset in the Pacific Ocean.
Since the 1950s, the US defense focus was aimed at neutralizing the threat of the Soviet Union and thwarting its plans to expand into and conquer Western Europe. However, the Soviet Union has been gone for more than two decades now, and the US is in the middle of rebalancing its forces. While militant Islam is a serious threat to the West, the major reason it has become so is due to deep cultural rot and unwillingness to fight, rather than any military weakness on the part of the West. Arabic militaries and terrorists are poorly trained, and poorly led.
The real threat to the US, militarily, is China, which has been rising to become a regional power and is aggressively testing the US-led alliance of states in east Asia. If you don’t believe me, check any newspaper website for a listing of articles on the South China Sea.
What makes Guam such a critical asset? For one, it’s location, location, location:
On the axis that crosses 5,000 miles of the Pacific between Hawai’i and Asia, Guam is the only island with both a protected harbor and sufficient land for major airports. Guam is also the largest landfall for communications, shipping, and military installations on the nearly 3,000-mile north-axis from Japan to Papua New Guinea and Australia. This geography means that whoever controls Guam has access by air and sea to China to the west, to Hawai’i and North America to the east, to Southeast Asia from the north and to Japan from the south. These geopolitical factors make Guam a valuable strategic nexus similar to other small island bastions in military history and maritime trade such as Hawai’i, Gibraltar, Malta and Singapore.
What kind of assets does the US military currently have in the region?
Naval Base Guam itself is a consolidated Navy installation with components around the island. The base is home of Commander Naval Forces Marianas, Commander Submarine Squadron FIFTEEN, Coast Guard Sector Guam, and Naval Special Warfare Unit One.
The base supports 28 other tenant commands and is the home base of three Los Angeles class submarines and to dozens of units operating in support of U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Seventh Fleet and Fifth Fleet.
The host unit at Andersen Air Force Base is the 36th Wing, a nonflying wing whose mission is to support deployed air and space forces of USAF and foreign air forces to Andersen, and support tenant units assigned to the base.
At the troop talk, Work explained the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific as a rebalancing of military forces, a strengthening of alliances and a way to boost the region’s economic power.
“We’re going to have 60 percent of the Navy out in the Pacific and we’re going to have 60 percent of our combat air forces out in the Pacific,” he said.
The US military controls about one quarter of the whole island:
The military controls more than a quarter of the land on Guam’s 212 square miles. The territory contains a sprawling Navy base, with special operations teams and docks for several submarines, as well as an Air Force base that houses a bomber group.
The military is also downscaling its presence in Japan and plans on moving 5,000 marines, along with their families, to Guam. This move involves a lot of new defense spending in the island:
In Guam and the Marianas, the Defense Department wants to create a space for large-scale exercises involving every branch of the American military and its Pacific allies. It would be adjacent to the Navy’s underwater training range in the Mariana trench, providing a rare location for the military to integrate sea and land warfare.
It also would help the military draw down its ranks on the Japanese island of Okinawa, where a dense concentration of Marine bases has motivated popular public protests for decades.
Japan, which hosts most of the troops who would be sent to Guam, is paying for more than a third of the estimated $8.7 billion cost of creating the new Marine facilities. Japan likely would participate in joint exercises if the training grounds are built, and Marines on Guam would be expected to respond to a disaster in Japan, 1,400 miles to the west.
“It’s location, location, location. We’re U.S. sovereign soil and we’re basically in the same time zone as Japan. The next closest U.S. soil is a seven-hour flight to Hawaii,” said Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo, one of the boosters behind the military buildup in Guam and the neighboring Northern Mariana Islands.
The US army also wants permanent missile defense on Guam as well:
The Army is pushing to have a permanent missile defense presence on Guam to guard against regional threats, primarily from North Korea, the Army’s commander in the Pacific said Tuesday.
“They’re technically rotational now” on one-year deployments to Guam, Gen. Vincent Brooks said of the hit-to-kill Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, systems made by Lockheed Martin Corp. “We want to get out of a rotational basis for that and get into a permanent station basis.”
A permanent station on Guam “will make it possible for us to have more options for commitment of THAAD in other places if asked,” said Brooks, commander of U.S. Army Pacific. One of those other possible places was South Korea, though “we haven’t been asked to do that,” he said.
All of this defense spending will likely generate a construction boom on Guam:
Already, $400 million in large construction projects have been completed on island. An additional $251 million has been awarded for coming projects, or projects currently underway.
The military relocation is expected to benefit the island’s economy, she said.
There’ll be a lot more contractors on island and a lot more jobs available in construction, she said.
With the recent release of the Record of Decision — a document that moves the proposed Marine base project in Guam from planning to execution — Guam will see more activity, according to military officials.
James Martinez, president of the Guam Contractors Association, has said military construction funds worth close to $400 million in a year would create “a lot of jobs” and open up more contracting opportunities for local small, medium and large businesses.
Unlike most of the rest of the US territories, Guam’s immediate future looks fairly bright, as the US continues to shift its military attention away from Europe, to Asia and the Pacific.
One-eighth of Guam’s adults have served in the US military:
Despite Guam’s small population of about 200,000 residents, the island tops the list of per capita enlistments, and nearly one in eight of its adults serve or have served in the armed forces. Throughout the year, airmen from Guam can be found in deployed locations from bustling hubs of airpower to remote outposts.
“A lot of people are surprised we have such a large military presence, although we are a place that is so small,” Meno said. “But when people ask about the island we love to tell them more. The way we are on Guam, we love meeting new people, inviting them in and sharing our culture with people.”