Growing up it seemed so natural to me that America had 50 states—it was an even, balanced number. But as I started learning history in elementary school, I experienced one of my earliest encounters with the peculiar sensation that my worldview was constructed rather than axiomatic. I learned that the United States has spent a majority of its existence with less than 50 states, only reaching the current total with the addition of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. More recently, I became aware of the sustained efforts to admit the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to the union as states. The justifications for statehood are solid: people living under federal laws should have a say in those laws, and there are many people living in these territories (roughly 700,000 and 3.2 million respectively).
While these are the two most talked about candidates for statehood, a more “radical” yet equally justifiable third candidate exists: the Mariana Islands. In order to grant the islands’ inhabitants equal representation under the law and protect them from Chinese and North Korean aggression, it makes sense to fully incorporate these islands as a 51st state.
The Mariana Islands are a chain of volcanic island formations in the west Pacific Ocean and one of the four main archipelagos in the Micronesia region. The islands are actually the peaks of an undersea mountain range that rises 6 miles from the Marianas Trench, forming a boundary between the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Politically, the island chain is divided into two territories— Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Guam is the largest and southernmost islet, and the Northern Mariana Islands make up the 14 remaining pieces of the archipelago. Both of these territories are under the United States’ administration, and are divided today due to geopolitics rather than any geographic or demographic logic.
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Colonialism and a people divided
For 3,000 years before the European age of colonization, the CHamoru people (see proper spelling) inhabited the Mariana Islands as one people with a shared language and cultural history. Today, the populations of the Mariana Islands are primarily a mix of people of CHamoru and Southeast Asian descent, including many military personnel and their families from the mainland U.S. Over the centuries, the islands have changed hands many times.
Spain first laid claim to the island chain in 1565, and began colonization in earnest in 1668. The CHamoru were hit hard by Old World diseases, and many more died during the period of Spanish colonization, including a series of revolts and sieges known as the “CHamoru Wars.” Spanish dominance was established in 1698. After the Spanish-American war in 1899, Guam fell into the hands of the United States along with Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Reportedly, the U.S. took only Guam so as to not appear greedy, and let Germany assume control of the remaining Mariana Islands. When World War I broke out, Japan seized the Northern Marianas from Germany with the blessing of its ally Britain, and the Chamorros on those islands suddenly found themselves studying Japanese language and law. In 1941, Japan attacked and seized Guam from the U.S. and for a time the CHamoru people were unified under Japanese imperial rule. The Islands changed hands again when the U.S. emerged victorious in the Pacific theater of World War II. America reclaimed Guam and administratively grouped the remaining Marianas in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, also known as Micronesia (a territory spanning 3,000,000 square miles and 2,000 islands). Despite centuries of imperial subjugation, around 40 percent of Guamanians today identify as CHamoru—the single largest ethnic group on the island— and the culture of Guam is full of pre- and post-colonial CHamoru customs.
After WWII, the people of Guam petitioned the U.S. for limited citizenship and self-government as a U.S. territory, which they obtained via the Organic Act of 1950. In the same year, the Northern Mariana Islands released its first statement on their desired political status: it requested incorporation into the U.S. as a territory and that their citizens be granted citizenship. However, U.N. and U.S. officials ignored the request because the Islands were still lumped in with the rest of Micronesia and the U.N. feared hundreds of new nations with individual votes being added to the General Assembly would dilute the body. The islands petitioned several times for reintegration with Guam and the United States by virtue of the shared CHamoru culture and being part of the same island chain. The U.N. did not grant any of these petitions.
Finally, the Northern Mariana Islands petitioned for and achieved the status of “unincorporated territory” in 1975, which put the territory in limbo between autonomy and fully joining the U.S., and their people became U.S. citizens. (The U.S. civilly administered Micronesia until 1984, when it became the sovereign nations known as the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands). But, unlike many of the other islands in the Micronesia region, unification and statehood for the Marianas have remained nothing more than a pipe dream for its proponents.
Statehood upholds the ideals of the republic
The democratic arguments for granting Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands statehood are the same as those posed for D.C. and Puerto Rico. All these lands fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. federal government, and are thus subject to its laws. However, as territories they are not represented in Congress and cannot cast votes for President. They therefore also have no influence on federal court appointments, despite being under the jurisdiction of such courts. The people of these lands live under a federal government in which they have no meaningful voice. Our history books would have you believe that the idea of a faraway nation regulating a colonial holding is the antithesis of America. Yet today, we perpetuate a form of the very “taxation without representation” that prompted cries for liberty in the 13 colonies that formed the United States.
Granting statehood would give the people of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands two Senators, a representative in the House, and the right to cast votes for President. Current political players might fear throwing another state into the mix and fret about tilting the balance in favor of either major party, but these concerns (aside from being pitifully partisan) would be largely unfounded. Since 1980, Guam has held non binding straw poll during presidential elections. Interestingly, in the past 10 elections Guam has voted Democrat 6 times, Republican 4 times, and picked the winning candidate in 8 out of 10 races. It has a higher voter turnout than the mainland, and pollsters often see Guam as an indicator of how the country will vote because it is 15 hours ahead of the contiguous United States. The Northern Mariana Islands provide less data, but the existing data also indicates support for both parties with a Republican leaning. Far from being a partisan shoe in, the Mariana Islands would be a dynamic—though small—swing state open to persuasion from both sides of the aisle.
If they became a full state, not much would change in the daily lives of the residents of the Mariana Islands, but they would have greater say in the federal policies that can apply to them. In addition, their citizenship would become harder to revoke because the U.S. constitution would fully apply to them. Currently, citizenship conferred to residents of these islands exists through a simple act of Congress, which can be repealed much more easily than the 14th amendment.
Statehood would also ensure that disaster relief is deployed quicker and more robustly should the need arise. Some have pointed to Puerto Rico’s status as a territory as part of the reason the disaster response following Hurricane Maria was slow and ineffectual. This argument makes sense: if a crisis were to occur in the Mariana Islands, them being constituents with congresspeople to represent them would speed up the aid process. When votes are on the line, politicians move.
Statehood better shields the Marianas from geopolitical threats
Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands have to face a geographic reality when considering their safety: they are dangerously close to China and North Korea. Well within range of both countries’ ballistic missiles, the Mariana Islands would likely be an early target—and likely a casualty—in any conventional military conflict between the U.S. and either Asian nation. Each nation presents a unique and real threat to the island chain.
China has visible contempt for Guam, and U.S. Pacific involvement in general. Its vaunted DF-26 missiles can carry nuclear warheads and have been unambiguously dubbed “Guam Killers” by Chinese internet users and media outlets.
Granted, Chinese disdain for the island stems from the U.S. military presence there, and the whole world would benefit from reduced militarization in general. But abandoning the Mariana Islands would signal to China that it can move more aggressively to assert control over the Pacific islands, where it already has its sights. The U.S. presence on Guam is bothersome to China not simply because it exists, but because it represents a barrier to the Chinese government’s neocolonial ambitions. For evidence of this, see China’s moves in the South China Sea.
And then there is North Korea. The rogue state is something of a wildcard, but one thing is clear: its nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles can reach and devastate the Mariana Islands, as it has threatened to do in the past. While Kim Jong Un’s missile tests are alarming to those of us in the mainland, imagine being the island within striking distance that North Korea explicitly names in its threat.
Much can be said about the United States’ past, present, and future in the Pacific region. The goal moving forward should not be competition with China for dominance, but support of Pacific peoples’ rights to sovereignty and economic freedom. Many Pacific Island nations outside the Marianas also wish for more attention from the U.S. as China continues to grow its influence in the region. Since Guam and the Northern Marianas already exist peacefully as U.S. territories, it is high time to afford them a firmer commitment to protection and economic support via statehood.
In short, the perceived penalties of messing with a U.S. state are higher, and will disincentivize China and North Korea from messing with the Mariana islands.
Why not total independence?
Some would argue that the moral and ethical path forward would be releasing the islands from the jurisdiction of the United States. Looking at U.S. history, there has been a particular zeal for adding states to the union, steeped in misguided notions about some preordained destiny that America is rising to meet. Terms like Manifest Destiny and Imperialism come to mind. Make no mistake, suggesting statehood for the Mariana islands is not an endorsement of imperialist practices or America’s land-grabbing tendencies. It is essential that we respect the history of the CHamoru people and give them the power to make decisions about their lands. However, pragmatism must prevail, and adding the Mariana Islands to the union would serve the interests of its people infinitely more so than granting them independence. Advancing to statehood under a framework of cultural preservation and
This scenario all takes place in a world where the U.S. would not abandon its strategic interests and give up Guam, and so statehood is the most pragmatic way to advance the interests of the inhabitants of the Mariana islands. But there are independent reasons for pursuing incorporation over severance. First, the islands chose incorporation and stand to benefit from statehood and federal assistance, which is why they have pushed for statehood in the past. Second, they are economically buoyed by US investment and federal assistance in the case of disaster (having the global economic hegemony fund your relief efforts helps in a pinch). Third, China would be more than happy to see the U.S. leave the region and fold the Mariana Islands into its own sphere of influence; one that would be much less tolerant of criticism and silly things like democracy.
In the end, statehood grants more autonomy than the status of unincorporated territory. States can write their own constitution establishing a system of government, sue the federal government, form interstate compacts, and work to amend the U.S. constitution. The everyday lives and culture of Marianans would not be changed much by the simple act of Congress, but they would have greater access to the benefits offered by the government that already administers them. Offering the choice to the islands via plebiscite would be a smart move by Congress, and one they ought to seriously consider.
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