US military plans present difficult balancing act for Marianas

6:16 pm on 22 August 2016

Their loyalty to the Americans cannot be questioned but the people of the Northern Marianas have their limits when it comes to military use of their land.

The volcanic island of Pagan in the Northern Marianas.

The volcanic island of Pagan in the Northern Marianas. Photo: Peter J. Perez

The United States military forces plan to use the Marianas islands of Tinian and Pagan as live-fire training sites for units associated with an imminent, large-scale build-up of US marines in neighbouring Guam.

Marianas authorites and residents are firmly opposed to the plans, and have been submitting their concerns to the US in a series of consultations.

One of the main concerns is that the plans could badly damage the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands' fast-growing tourism industry, of which casino developments are a major drawcard.

Like Puerto Rico, the CNMI is a US territory with commonwealth status - as well its own turbulent colonical history, the Marianas chain has played a pivotal role in American military history.

Notably, Tinian was the site of the largest US air base during World War II and the departure point for the flights which carried the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Notwithstanding reservations about colonialism among the indigenous Chamorro people of the Marianas, local support for the US and its military is strong, the cultural links are many.

But as the US re-positions its military forces in the Asia-Pacific region, the North Marianas finds itself with a difficult balancing act.

Pagan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Pagan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Photo: Peter J. Perez


The US plans have been in the pipeline for at least six years, with American officials having conducted various consultations and received thousands of submissions on them.

As well as live-fire activities, it's envisaged that the military would use the two islands for bombing and large-scale exercises involving multiple arms of the American military and its regional allies.

In 2015, the US Military told RNZI that it had gone beyond what the law required of it in terms of engagement with local stakeholders over the plans.

However, last month, a lawsuit was filed by four Northern Marianas community groups, with legal representation by the NGO Earthjustice, against the US proposals for Pagan and Tinian.

Earthjustice's attorney David Henkin claims the US has shifted the goalposts on its plans for Tinian and Pagan.

He argues that the National Environmental Policy Act requires the Navy to take a thorough look at all of the impacts associated with the imminent relocation of 5000 US marines from Okinawa in Japan to Guam.

This transferral process was itself the subject of much angst in Guam where local opposition to the original plan to send 9000 marines from Okinawa succeeded in leveraging a reduction in size of the transfer.

However the number of marines being transferred, and its associated impacts, is still significant.

Mr Henkin said that due to this transfer, proposed training in the neighbouring Marianas had changed radically since 2010, from low-level to highly destructive "war game" exercises.

"In 2018 is when it's projected they'll actually do their environmental review for the training associated with moving those marines - in other words the training those marines are going to need to do. Well, by then it's too late," he explained.

"By 2018 the die will be cast. So, the marines will be on Guam, the infrastructure will be built and at that point, they're not going to abandon the project and move marines elsewhere or consider different training that would be less destructive."

Tinian North Field, Northern Marianas, the largest US air base during World War II.

Tinian North Field, Northern Marianas, the largest US air base during World War II. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Claims by US officials and leaders that the Marianas stands to gain economically and security-wise from the military plans are shared by some locals, but opposition to the scale of the plans is widespread.

One of the plaintiff groups in the lawsuit is the Tinian Women's Association.

Its spokesperson Deborah Fleming said that when two-thirds of Tinian was leased by the US military in the 1970s, the island's elders were presented with a far different picture of how the US wished to use it.

"Using our island for a firing range was never discussed, and they would never have agreed to it," she explained.

"Because our elders survived World War II, and they talked about the fear and the damage that bombs and weapons of mass destruction can do to your island and natural resources."

The island of Pagan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.

The largest and one of the most active of the Mariana Islands volcanoes, Pagan consists of two stratovolcanoes connected by a narrow isthmus. Photo: Peter J. Perez

Pagan, which is described by one American biologist as a "biological treasure house", remains largely uninhabited following volcanic eruption in 1981.

Yet, Pagan's indigenous community hopes to one day return to resettle there, and Cinta Kaipat of the group Paganwatch said US plans were an obstacle to this.

"They are also supposed to look at other alternatives within our region, and they have not done that," she said.

"That's why we're saying listen, we support the military, this has nothing to do with patriotism, and everything to do with not wanting our home island to be bombed. Why can't they understand that no means no?"

A statement from the US military's Joint Region Marianas command said it was aware of the lawsuit but that since the issue was pending litigation, it couldn't comment on any specifics related to the matter.

However, this month the US Pacific Command invited the CNMI to visit military facilities at its main base in Hawaii.

The Governor of the Northern Marianas, Ralph Torres, and leaders from the island of Tinian were to take up the offer, including attending live-fire training sessions.

The island of Pagan in the Northern Marianas.

Pagan's indigenous community still visit the island which remains generally uninhabited since the 1981 eruption. Photo: Peter J. Perez

The governor's spokesperson Ivan Blanco said the US plans for Tinian and Pagan were unacceptable in their current form, but discussions were continuing, and the tour was a part of that.

"The military speaks of live fire training. It helps when you actually see what they have in mind, actually experience it, the sounds, the effects it causes," he said.

He said the impacts were all related to questions which the Marianas leaders were concerned about.

"What happens to the ammunitions after they are expelled; What happens after the explosions take place and so forth."

Enter the high rollers

While the US plans for the CNMI appear central to their efforts to counter the rapid surge of China's military in the western Pacific, it seems timely that Chinese interests are coming in to play in the Marianas.

They come primarily in the form of two major casino developments that are helping transform the otherwise struggling Marianas economy.

In the past two years, Chinese money has been a big part of the's territory emergence as an attractive gambling hub.

A subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Imperial Pacific International Holdings, Best Sunshine International Limited is developing a $US550 million casino resort on Saipan.

Saipan, CNMI

Saipan is the largest and most populated island in the Northern Marianas. Photo: Supplied

While building its grand new resort, Best Sunshine has been operating a temporary casino in a duty-free mall on Saipan, making a killing off high rollers from China looking for a new alternative to Macau.

Rolling chip volumes, which account for all the chips bought by players for transactions in the casino, hit approximately US$1.7 billion for July.

The casino operations have meant good business for Saipan in general and the CNMI tourism industry, whose main markets are South Korea, China and Japan.

The managing director of the Marianas Visitors Authority, Chris Concepcion, said the US military buildup on Guam expected over the next few years presented opportunity for CNMI tourism to grow.

However, he admitted that US military plans for Tinian and Pagan represented a dark cloud on the horizon.

This is particularly the case for the territory's other big casino development, Macau-based Alter City Group's US$1.2-billion casino resort development being constructed on Tinian.

As of 2016, the top source markets for tourists to the Northern Marianas were South Korea, followed by China, then Japan.

As of 2016, the top source markets for tourists to the Northern Marianas were South Korea, followed by China, then Japan. Photo: RNZI / Mark Rabago

Mr Concepcion confirmed the tourism industry's anxiety that the US plans would "detrimentally affect the pristine landscapes of those islands, thereby affecting the overall tourist experience in the CNMI".

"We want to see a more balanced approach to US military activity in the CNMI, and at the end of the day, we need to protect our islands for future generations to enjoy," he said.

The mayor of Tinian, Joey San Nicolas, said concerns about the environmental impact of the military plans had already been raised by developers.

"I know of at least one of the developers submitting their comments in opposition to the plan," he said, "but I think any developer that wants to come here wants to make sure that we don't have anything that would really have a negative impact on our environment."

Weighing up the need to enable investment in the islands with the need to maintain the involvement of the US, and the security which this relationship provides, is a tricky juggling act for the CNMI.

More public hearings on the latest version of the US military's draft environmental impact statement on its plans for Tinian and Pagan are expected before the end of the year.

But the feeling among locals that the plan opens the islands up for environmental and social devastation is unlikely to fade quickly.

  • Lawsuit filed against US military plans in the CNMI
  • US Pacific Command concerned with N.Korea missiles
  • A colony for centuries, Guam pushes for change
  • Northern Marianas worried about reach of Chinese missiles
  • CNMI see US military changes as victory