The recent threat of missile attacks on Guam by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has not only caused a lot of apprehension among the local population of Guam, but has also suddenly placed the tiny and peaceful southwestern Pacific island in the international spotlight.
Like Puerto Rico, Guam is, constitutionally speaking, an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, which means it is controlled by the US federal government but is not officially considered part of the US territory. (Editor’s note: the US currently possesses 14 unincorporated territories around the globe with a total population of about four million, with Puerto Rico being the largest and most populous among them.)
Yet, unlike Puerto Rico, Guam doesn’t have “commonwealth” status, which means the island is entitled to less autonomy.
Generally speaking, the people of Guam are by law natural-born US citizens and may move, reside and work freely between the island and the American mainland. Besides, Guam has its own popularly elected government and legislature, as well as an independent judiciary that closely resembles that of any US state.
However, since Guam is not officially part of the US territory, therefore the people of Guam don’t have any representative in the US Congress, nor do they have the right to vote for president despite the fact that they are all US passport holders.
On the other hand, the US Congress has the power to overturn any law passed by the Guam legislature, and decide which provisions in the US constitution are applicable to the island.
Even though the US seized Guam from Spain during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Washington had never attached any strategic importance to the island until after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, after which Guam was conquered by Imperial Japanese forces.
And after the US forces took back the island from Japan in 1944, the American government immediately embarked on a massive infrastructure project on Guam and turned it into a heavily fortified US military foothold for the southwestern Pacific region.
However, unlike other former Japanese territories in the southwestern Pacific entrusted to the US after the World War II such as the Northern Mariana Islands, which was eventually given “commonwealth” status by Washington in 1975, the constitutional status of Guam has remained unsettled to this day.
One thing worth mentioning is that the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) actually proposed to unify with Guam and put it to the vote through a referendum in 1962, only to be vetoed by the Guam voters. However, even so, the CNMI has never given up hope.
It is widely believed that the reason the CNMI has been so keen on unifying with Guam is because their successful unification can give the CNMI administration an ultimate mandate with which it can go on to fight for official US statehood in a position of relative strength.
Unfortunately, the people of Guam aren’t keen on unifying with the CNMI at all, since on one hand, Guam itself is much better off economically than other southwestern Pacific islands, and on the other, the two places have indeed little in common despite the fact that they are both inhabited by the same indigenous Chamorro people.
The CNMI is deeply influenced by Japanese culture due to its colonial past, whereas Guam has been ruled by the US since 1898, hence the lack of “chemistry” between the people of Guam and the CNMI.
In recent years, there has been talk of Guam seeking more autonomy or even demanding full independence. However, the idea is likely to remain a rhetoric in the foreseeable future.
Washington is unlikely to give up control of Guam given its high strategic value, and the idea of seeking full independence may actually work against the interests of Guam since the local economies there rely heavily on spending by US military personnel.
Besides, once Guam has declared independence, no one is going to protect it against any ballistic missile attack launched by North Korea, although the chances of this worst-case scenario actually happening are very remote.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 23
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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