On February 14, Northern Mariana Islands Governor Arnold Palacios (I) met with the Department of Defense (DOD) Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation to discuss the Northern Mariana Islands’ role in the United States’ military strategy. Palacios and Director Patrick J. O’Brien discussed American military projects in the commonwealth and agreed upon a $15 million investment to advance DOD interests in the region. But the cooperative conclusion of Palacios and O’Brien is an anomaly in a strategic relationship that has been fraught with tension over the last decade.
The Northern Mariana Islands became a part of US military strategy during World War II, where it represented a forward position in the American bombing campaign against Japan. The islands were so integral to the American campaign that the two nuclear bombs used against Japan departed from Tinian, the territory’s second-largest island.
For 70 years, the islands’ military partnership with the United States has simmered. The United States’ Pacific presence largely shifted to Guam, which neighbors the Northern Mariana Islands. And despite being an American territory, the commonwealth is to some extent economically dependent on China, the United States’ chief geopolitical rival.
In 2015, the US Navy proposed the largest military operation in the commonwealth in the last seven decades. A military paper detailed plans to use Tinian and the smaller island of Pågan for mortar, rocket, and bombing training. The proposal met widespread backlash from Northern Mariana Islands’ citizens, and activists protested the consequences the proposal would have on the economy, environment, and quality of life of the islands. In 2022, after years of protests and detailed reports describing the irreversible damage the proposal would do to local coral reefs, the Navy drastically scaled back its plans.
Despite these setbacks, however, the Northern Mariana Islands are being reintegrated into US military strategy. The islands played their largest strategic role when the US was at war with Japan across the Pacific. Now, in the midst of another Pacific competition with China, the islands are being restored to their formal role. At the same time as the navy made concessions in its plans, America began building a new airbase in the commonwealth. In January of 2023, the US announced a new marine base in Guam with the goal of aiding and training troops stationed in the Northern Mariana Islands. General David Berger, who is leading the project, flew to Saipan and Tinian to discuss plans with Northern Mariana Islands officials.
After decades of disuse, the commonwealth is rejoining the American geopolitical chess game. The fact that Governor Palacios, only a month into his term, met with and agreed to a new funding program with the Department of Defense demonstrates the newfound importance of the commonwealth in the United States forward position and the air base on Tipian and marine base near the islands seem to forecast a greater military role for the commonwealth in years to come.