Sunday, July 21, 2024

Island Issues

South Pacific: U.S. Territory Offers to Lease Surplus Islands to China

In a move that surprised the international community – including the United States government – the governor of Northern Mariana has suggested that China lease some uninhabited isles.

(Image Courtesy of

The on-going recession has hit even the most isolated corners of the globe; according recent news reports, the U.S. territory of Northern Mariana is among them. A small island community of just over 46,000 people, rampant unemployment has led the governor, Benigno Fitial, to make China a surprising proposal. At a meeting with Chinese governors and party secretaries, he offered up to 10 of his territory’s uninhabited islands to China on a leasehold basis.

“Lease these islands so that I can have enough financial resources to provide for more full employment for my people,” he said. The U.S. State Department, according to a report in Business Week, were not aware of the offer, and were unsure as to whether it was even legal. In any case, why would China be interested in leasing these remote isles at all?

The far-flung Marianas Islands, which include the territories of Guam and Northern Mariana, are spread out in an arc just across the eastern boundary of the Philippine Sea. Further east and about 11 kilometres under the sea is the famous Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the earth’s oceans and known as the world’s most active “volcanic hotspot”.

(Image Courtesy of C.T. Snow)

It was the turmoil beneath the ocean that gave rise to the volcanic, mountainous Marianas Islands, and all 15 isles of the northern territory are covered in lush tropical forests that flourish in their rich soil. The islands’ superior fertility and plentiful supplies of fresh water could give rise to one use, should China take the governor up on his offer – offshore farming communities to help supply China’s hungry 1.3 billion people?

The most obvious use for the islands, and the one that made the United States so interested in acquiring the territories during WWII, are as well-positioned military bases. Given China’s long-standing fight for control of the South China Sea, this would appear to be attractive indeed. In an interview after his offer to the Chinese governors, however, Fitial clarified that any military activity would be strictly forbidden.

“We control the islands, the islands belong to us,” the governor said. “We have to make sure in the lease agreement that we won’t allow anything that will be military because we are under the U.S. government.” Given the islands’ beauty, abundant coral reefs and pristine nature, they would probably be better suited to holiday resorts for China’s elite than an army base, anyway.

Read more about this story: Business Week

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