Guam: An Early Casualty of U.S.-China Tensions?

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Sometime after World War II, the Boiga irregularis, or the brown tree snake, is believed to have hitched a ride on a cargo ship and landed on the  Pacifc island of Guam. For the snake, Guam was paradise, home to a large number of prey and no natural predators. By 1970, the snake had colonized the entire island, pushing several bird species to the brink of extinction, clearing the forest of small mammals, terrorizing human residents, and causing thousands of power outages that persist today. On average, there is a snake-caused power outage every third day on Guam; costs due to damage and lost of productivity are estimated to run as high as $4 million every year.

Now Guam is getting ready for a new invasive species to come ashore: the U.S. Marines. At least, that’s how some of Guam’s 178,000 residents see it. A U.S. territory since 1898, the military has had a long presence on Guam, but a U.S. agreement with Japan to transfer over 8000 Marines from Okinawa to the island will significantly increase the military presence there, and, according to critics, further upset Guam’s natural and cultural environment and strain its limited resources.

The buildup, as its come to be known on Guam, is one of “the largest movements of military assets in decades while helping to maintain a robust military presence in the Asia-Pacific region,” according to the Department of Defense. Right now, projected costs for the relocation and new facilities are estimated to be over $10 billion, with Japan footing more than half the bill. The move is part of the military’s broader strategy of strengthening its presence around Asia as China builds up its own navy; the U.S. is also upgrading facilities at Diego Garcia, a British-owned island south of Sri Lanka, where navy equipment is kept for deployment.

The expansion of the Guam facilities has been met with decidedly mixed reviews, both from residents and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Labor needed to complete the construction could raise the island’s population 45-50% by some estimates, in addition to the 23,000 Marines and their dependents who will be relocated there. The EPA, in evaluating the navy’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), gave the draft plan its worst rating, warning that it could cause island-water shortages, overload sewage treatment systems, and “exacerbate existing substandard environmental conditions on Guam.”

During the statement’s open comment period, in which the U.S. accepted comments from the public, thousands of Guam residents responded, voicing their concerns over issues including coral that would be destroyed in new dredging in the harbor, the impact of new firing ranges on Pagat, locally sacred land, and how the local government would cope with the infrastructure upgrades the buildup would require. “The U.S. military has no plan for how the civilian community will be able to adapt to this,” says Michael Lujan Bevacqua, a history professor at the University of Guam. “The government is [talking about] all the money being spent ‘inside the fence,’ but the same amount needs to be spent ‘outside the fence'” to improve things like water, wastewater, education, and hospitals. (Here’s a photo essay about Pagat and other endangered places in the U.S.)

In the final version of the EIS, released in July, the Navy addressed many of these concerns, extending the timeline of the project, agreeing to look further into the dredging, delaying a decision on where to put the firing ranges, and committing money to help upgrade the island’s wastewater treatment and power facilities, among other things. “We have made a commitment to not exceed the capacity of the infrastructure on Guam,” says Major Neil A. Ruggiero, a public affairs officer for the Marines in Guam. This week, the USDA also announced that it was loaning the Port of Guam $54.5 million to help modernize the port, in addition to a previous $50 million committed by the DOD earlier this year. “There are always going to be people who are happy, people who are not so happy, and then there are people in the middle,” Ruggiero says. “Now, there are all three.”

Bevacqua  is skeptical whether the military’s final plan, which is now underway with the awarding of the first two contracts, was drafted in the true spirit of compromise. “They said that we will delay those decisions, but all indications are they will make the same decisions at a later date,” says Bevacqua. “This whole thing is about showing that they’re listening, but they don’t want to listen at all. They want the option that they want.”

But he admits that he and other anti-military activists are in the minority. Many Guam residents, though they cannot vote in presidential elections and have no congressional representation, feel decidedly more a part of the U.S. than Asia. Particularly after the U.S. recaptured Guam from Japanese occupancy in 1944, the American military has been seen by many on the island as a positive force in the community that lends a hand when natural disasters hit the island, and the coming buildup as a sorely needed source of jobs in a limited economy. (This is an interesting audio slideshow about the U.S. military presence in the Pacific.)

Strategically, Guam has often been called ‘the tip of the spear’ in America’s Pacific arsenal. But as the U.S. bulks its presence up next door to an increasingly confident China, Bevacqua thinks Guam is getting the short end of that stick. “When the U.S. starts posturing toward China, I start to worry. People in Oklahoma aren’t going to get bombed. We’re going to get bombed,” he says. “The tip of the spear is the first thing to get bloody, you know.”