In 2021, the United States announced plans to construct two new military installations in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Palau. Both states are part of the larger region of Micronesia, an archipelago of more than 2,000 small islands in the western Pacific Ocean, which has taken on elevated importance amid a perceived rising Chinese presence in the Pacific. It is not every day that there is a new military base, so two in one year—and in the same region—is a big deal. One can, however, be excused for missing these significant developments: Understandably, Micronesia occupies a micro-space in global discussions.
The United States is content to keep things this way and hide its enduring legacy of colonialism spearheaded by the military and its bases in Micronesia. Almost any representative of the military, however, will extoll how these bases improve the lives of their neighbors—they’re mutually beneficial. Despite these bases being touted as “mutually beneficial,” the US military and its Micronesian installations have a parasitic relationship with their host countries; if the United States truly wants mutually beneficial relationships in Micronesia, it must scale back its military presence and provide assistance for those it has displaced.
As a brief introduction, Micronesia is a region in the central Pacific Ocean. It is comprised of many small islands and small island states: the FSM, Guam, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands (RMI), Nauru, the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI), and Palau. Of these, two are US. territories (Guam and the CNMI), and three are so-called “compact countries” (the FSM, RMI, and Palau) that have signed Compacts of Free Association with the United States. These Compacts provide for millions of dollars in aid each year, among other benefits, on the condition that defense responsibility is ceded to the United States. This responsibility includes the potential construction of military bases.
These bases, as hubs of US military presence, can have disastrous effects on local communities. In the RMI, the United States struck a deal with local landowners on Kwajalein Atoll, in which they would lease 7 islands (including the largest, Kwajalein) for 35 years. Marshallese living on Kwajalein were relocated to nearby Ebeye; subsequently, the lure of base jobs on Kwajalein (and, not to mention, displacement from nuclear weapons on Bikini) led to a population boom on the small island. Colloquially known as the “Slum of the Pacific,” Ebeye quickly became overpopulated, underdeveloped, and impoverished. As the time came for renewal, the local landowners asked for an increase in rent to fund infrastructure projects on Ebeye. When the initial lease expired without a new agreement on September 30, 1981, they occupied the installation in protest. How did the United States respond? They reneged on their previous agreement, announcing that all future negotiations would be through the RMI government. After effectively stripping landowners of their bargaining power, they declared the protest illegal and had the landowners forcibly removed off of their own land. The situation in Ebeye has not changed much since then. Currently, it is the sixth most densely populated island in the world. Families who held land on Kwajalein now work there as cashiers, nannies, and janitors, while the few Marshallese families remaining on Kwajalein are forced to move to Ebeye by defense contractors.
Unlike the RMI, Guam is an explicit colony of the United States and is listed on the United Nations’ Non-Self-Governing Territories List. First a Spanish colony in 1565, Guam was transferred to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Originally claiming the entire island as “Naval Station Guam,” the US military began forcing indigenous Chamorro landowners to sign away their land after World War II. Today, 27 percent of the land in Guam is owned by the US military—most of it without just compensation. For those who still own land, they often must prove their right to be on their own property. As a result of the military’s displacement, Chamorros now make up almost 53 percent of Guam’s homeless, and Guam has a greater rate of poverty than the mainland United States. Since the land on Guam is owned, not leased, by the military, it does not provide a steady source of income for the Guamanian government. While tourism can bring jobs, it does not pay for infrastructure. And as the coronavirus pandemic proved, it is far from stable.
It’s not just people that the military displaces. Kwajalein Atoll has seen forests razed, reefs destroyed, and chemicals leaked. As far as Guam is concerned, the military essentially decides whether its environment lives or dies. A Navy plan for a heavy artillery range on the island of Tinian in the CNMI would have encompassed most of the island—putting it in a similar situation to Kwajalein. This controversial plan was met with resistance from the local community, who sought to prevent desecration of their lands and environment. After a seven year fight, the Navy scrapped the artillery range plans. However, as these new bases in the FSM and Palau demonstrate, the military’s ambitions have not been quelled.
US bases in Micronesia (and, admittedly, everywhere) are primarily self-serving, no matter how many ceremonies and press conferences laud their mutual benefits. The military constructs its bases, displaces indigenous islanders, and leaves them to fend for themselves. These bases do not provide infrastructure or education outside of them. Even on Kwajalein, with its countless charity missions, most Americans are self-admittedly there to “support the mission.” The military deludes itself into believing that by simply pursuing its self-interests, it is improving the lives of those it displaces–all the while, these issues are lucky to be even a passing thought. As esteemed Marshallese poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner wrote:
as in small. tiny
crumbs of islands scattered
across the pacific ocean.
different countries/nations/cultures no one
has heard about / cares about too
The lesson from this has been clear for decades: listen to the Chamorro people; scale back bases and firing ranges and return ancestral lands instead of further encroaching upon them. Listen to the landowners of Kwajalein and the people of Ebeye: Provide the funding for infrastructure projects to improve their material conditions and quality of life. The military greatly benefits from being a guest on their lands—the least it can do is listen to its hosts. If it cannot do that, then get out.