18 September 2017



Robert Underwood
for the 
Pacific Daily News

Robert Underwood is president of the University of Guam and Guam’s former delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives

Guam’s economic future is dependent upon many factors, most of them external. For decades, we believed we were the tail end of trends from other places. Our economic life was decided elsewhere. We were the tail and the dog was either in travel bureaus in Japan or Pentagon planners near Washington, D.C. All we could do was try to reactively plan.

The most obvious disjuncture in this economy is that these two drivers are in conflict. Located in Guam is a huge military platform from which power and influence can be projected into Asia without having to consult anybody in Guam. We are the tip of the spear, but we are not guiding the spear and to date we have little influence over the spear holder. In fact, we usually ask for spear enhancements to grow our economy.

Is being the tip of the spear a tourist attraction? As a result of the North Korean threat, visitor numbers declined. Of course, tourism hasn’t increased tenfold, as suggested by President Trump.

There are other effects of being a target. Businesses on island have lost out in recruiting professionals who have decided that living at the tip of the spear is not attractive. The University of Guam’s English Adventure Program, which attracted 6,000 young people annually from Korea and Japan last year, has experienced a dip.

When you watch news accounts in Asia and you see military hardware is coming your way from Guam, you may feel comforted or you may be angered. I have experienced both as I have watched these reports with fellow educators in China and Korea. What you don’t experience is a desire to spend your family vacation on Guam.

America’s military strategic posture is to reinforce stability and the status quo. When there is instability, the military posture increases. It only ramps up in places like Guam, where we do not have a voice in negotiating a presence.

When a region is experiencing instability, travel suffers. We are left to make strategic coherence out of countervailing trends. While we procure sirens to warn ourselves, we send delegations to Asia to tell others there is nothing to worry about. The tail is wagging furiously and frankly getting tired.

We have to plan for an economic future that is more sustainable. We must plan for a knowledge-based economy that brings together research capabilities, capital and entrepreneurship to explore the creation of companies in information technology, biotechnology, agriculture and health care. This is the model that has been followed when government, businesses and higher education work together to create economic activity based on advanced knowledge. This is what made Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle in North Carolina possible.

We have that potential on a small, but beginning scale. We need to stop looking at higher education in Guam as simply providing a workforce for existing businesses. We have to start looking at research and private-sector connections via intellectual property protections and the power of Guam’s young minds. Instead of pushing more tax credits toward older forms of economic activities, let’s explore a knowledge based economy.

In this way, we can be our own dog. Not quite a big dog, but I am tired of being the tail.