Guam wants a seat at the Pacific’s ‘top table


The government of Guam has rejected suggestions Washington is behind the United States territory’s bid to join the Pacific’s peak diplomatic body.

Experts say the move would place the U.S “firmly on the inside” of debates about China and other regional matters.

The Pacific Islands Forum , which currently has 17 members, is the primary body through which Pacific nations and territories engage and make decisions at a multilateral level.

Guam’s Lieutenant Governor Josh Tenorio said the tropical island territory located about 2,800 kilometers south-east of Taiwan is a “key player” in the Pacific and should be part of joint decision-making processes, particularly around climate change and security.

“We have, in Guam, a very big desire to be part of discussions that are going to promote regionalism,” Tenorio said.

He said the government of Guam is preparing a letter to officially seek membership in the Pacific Islands Forum, where it currently holds observer status.

In recent years Guam, which is home to two large U.S military bases, has been the target of missile threats from North Korea and indirect military threats from China, which released a video of a missile it calls “The Guam Killer.”

“What is happening on Guam certainly would be helpful for the other nations to understand,” Tenorio said. “The people of Guam are shouldering a burden for peace and security in the region.”

Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, an expert in Pacific geopolitics at the University of Hawaii, said the move is likely to be a “huge concern” for Beijing.

“If Guam were to join [the PIF]…one could arguably say that the U.S would be in a much stronger position in terms of its influence in the region,” Kabutaulaka said.

“China never had, and doesn’t have a colonial territory in the Pacific, so it could not do the same kind of thing.”

Tenorio said Washington was not pulling Guam’s strings in its bid to join the PIF.

“I want to make it clear that our government is not being utilised, nor has [it] been solicited by the United States federal government to be a part of the forum,” Tenorio said.

“Our effort is based on our leadership of Guam as an integral part of the Pacific.”

He said Guam also want to be a part of key discussions around climate change and that its government has endorsed the Forum’s guiding document, the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy.

However, Pacific experts have noted the timing of Guam’s request to join the forum.

The bid comes not long after President Joe Biden held an historic summit with Pacific leaders in Washington, where they endorsed a declaration on the U.S-Pacific partnership.

The U.S also made in-roads at the PIF leaders’ retreat in Suva earlier this year when Vice President Kamala Harris gave a video address despite an earlier decision by Pacific leaders to ban the U.S and China from attending as dialogue partners.

“I do not have any evidence to suggest that Washington, D.C. is influencing things. But I would not be surprised if that is the case,” Kabutaulaka said.

Tess Newton Cain, project lead at the Griffith Asia Institute’s Pacific Hub, said it would be naive to believe the U.S is not influencing Guam’s PIF push.

“From the U.S point of view, given their avowed intention to be much more engaged in the region, they would see it as very beneficial,” she said. “You’re able to sit at that top table, if you like.”

Guam’s desire to join the PIF is likely to cause a stir among Pacific nations.

Established in 1971 with the goal of enhancing regional cooperation, the forum was originally comprised only of independent Pacific nations.

“I think it’s important to remember that decolonization in the Pacific was a founding principle for the establishment of the Pacific Islands Forum,” Dr Newton Cain said.

“There would be a question to be asked about whether allowing Guam to become a full member is in full alignment with that.”

But Cain also pointed to a precedent set when the French territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia were granted PIF membership in 2016.

The decision was made partly on the basis that both territories had made significant steps towards gaining independence and were registered on the United Nations decolonization list at the time.

While Guam’s indigenous Chamorro people have campaigned for independence from the United States, the movement is not as formalised.

“I’m not aware of any kind of pathway that’s in place,” Cain said.

Tenorio said it would be inconceivable to deny Guam’s inclusion.

“What would the difference be?” he asked. “Guam has one non-voting delegate to the United States House of Representatives. So, we even have less direct involvement in the national affairs of the United States.”

He said Guam has received a “tremendous amount of support” from Pacific leaders when discussing its desire to join the Forum.

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo said Guam’s potential membership of PIF is a conversation well worth having.

“Although often seen by outsiders as purely a territory or component unit of the United States, Guam — in a manner not dissimilar to New Caledonia and French Polynesia, or Niue and Cook Islands — is a self-governing Pacific Island,” he told ABC.

Panuelo noted that Guam is already a member of other Pacific agencies, including the Pacific Island Development Program and the Pacific Community.

“The Federated States of Micronesia understands and respects Guam’s position and interest to join the Pacific Islands Forum,” he said.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said it was aware of Guam’s interest in joining the Forum.

New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry said any decisions on membership of the PIF would need to be made by Forum leaders on the basis of consensus.

Other Pacific nations, including Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, have not responded to the ABC’s requests for comment.

Guam’s bid to join the PIF comes at a tumultuous time for the regional body.

Earlier this year, Kiribati announced its decision to leave the body after a year-long leadership dispute involving Micronesian countries.

Kabutaulaka said the dispute over Guam’s inclusion could further destabilise the PIF.

“Pacific Island countries might say ‘our premier political organisation…is now being taken over by powers, such as the U.S, France, and therefore it is no longer worth being a member,’ ” Kabutaulaka said.

“I think with the current geopolitical discussions and competition that’s taking place, some Pacific Island countries will push back on this.”

He said there is potential for other U.S territories in the Pacific, including American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, to follow Guam’s lead and also apply for PIF membership.

Cain pointed to potential governance issues.

As an unincorporated U.S territory, Guam does not have the ability to exercise its own foreign policy and may not be able to sign treaties and agreements central to the PIF.

“The more we have these members that…don’t necessarily have the requisite amount of power to fully participate, then it can make things very complicated,” Cain said.

She said the possible storage of nuclear weapons on Guam would be at odds with anti-nuclear proliferation pacts signed by PIF members.

“Whether there are or are not nuclear weapons in Guam is not something that gets talked about in public,” she said.

“But I think there would certainly be some concern that having Guam as a member could cause problems on that score.”

Issues may also arise from a pending review of the PIF’s regional architecture.

Solomon Islands cited the review when announcing an intention to hold off on signing a joint declaration with the U.S. last month, although it did eventually endorse the pact.

Soli Middleby, a former Australian diplomat to the Pacific, said Pacific leaders may want to complete the review before considering Guam’s request to join the forum.

“A lot of these questions around membership, how you engage, what the right set up for the Pacific Islands Forum should be fleshed out and discussed within that process,” she said. “I think these things are always contentious. But that’s politics,” she said.