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Trump's Rhetoric Renews Debate In Guam: Is Being 'Tip Of The Spear' Worth It?

Residents go fishing this week near Tumon Beach in Guam. Some people on the strategically located island fear the president's rhetoric has exposed them to danger.
Virgilio Valencia
AFP/Getty Images
Residents go fishing this week near Tumon Beach in Guam. Some people on the strategically located island fear the president's rhetoric has exposed them to danger.

The tiny U.S. territory of Guam came under the international spotlight after North Korea said Wednesday that it's studying whether to launch a missile test toward the island. President Trump responded by escalating the rhetoric.

"Let's see what he does with Guam," Trump said of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. "If he does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before what will happen in North Korea."

The president spoke with Guam Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo on Saturday to reassure him and residents here. The call happened as some Guamanians worried aloud that the president's harsh words are exposing their island home to unnecessary danger.

It's a tropical paradise with white sand beaches and stunning sunsets, but this American territory, since 1898, was fought over for centuries for a different reason.

"Guam is the largest island between Hawaii and the Philippines, and it has a natural deep seawater port," says Robert Underwood, former Guam delegate to the U.S. Congress and current president at the University of Guam. Guam now hosts major American military might like a bomber fleet and a missile defense system.

"For the United States, it's the place from which you can project power into Asia in an unfettered way," Underwood says.

The U.S. military owns about a third of the land here and has both an Air Force and naval base on Guam. But because of its key strategic role in the Pacific, Guam is also a target for North Korea.

"We're too close for comfort," says Francesca Ballendorf, a longtime Guamanian. She says she would like see the president's tough talk dial down.

"It is scary because I lived through the Second World War, and I certainly don't want to see another one," she says.

During that war, Japan occupied Guam until U.S. forces helped liberate it. Guam is called the "tip of the spear" for that reason. But tenser times like this one throw residents into a familiar debate. Is being the tip of the spear really worth it?

"When President Trump says, 'Go ahead and do what you're gonna do on Guam and see what happens subsequently,' it causes you to think, 'Well, would he say that if Anchorage [in Alaska] had that same threat? If Kim Jong Un said he would hit Anchorage, would he say, "Go ahead hit Anchorage and see what happens?" ' " Underwood said.

Guamanians are American citizens by birth but not allowed to vote in the American presidential election. Guam elects a delegate to the U.S. House, but that delegate isn't allowed to vote on a bill's final passage.

And yet the islnd often exposed to threats coming at America.

"How do people really see Guam in the context of the U.S. family? Are we just like cannon fodder, are we just extras, are we just not part of the equation?"

It's an existential question for this tiny territory currently caught between President Trump and North Korea.

Public Radio Guam's Chris Hartig contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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