Colonies in the 21st century (III)

Assange’s release shines a light on both the curbing of media freedom and on colonialism: Assange had to plead guilty on Saipan, a US island with no voting rights in a Pacific archipelago that remains a US colony.

BERLIN/WASHINGTON/SAIPAN (own report) - The specifics of Julian Assange’s release turn a spotlight not only on the state of media freedom in the West but also on the continuation of Western colonial rule in parts of the Global South. The condition for dropping the legal case against Assange is that the founder of WikiLeaks pleads guilty to a violation of the 1917 US Espionage Act. This arrangement is unprecedented insofar as it is the first time that this act has been applied to journalistic publication of confidential US information. Assange pleaded in person before a US court in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands. This group of Pacific islands form a US territory whose inhabitants do not have the right to vote in presidential elections. Nor do they have a political representative in Washington entitled to vote in Congress. The same lack of suffrage is found on Guam, the southernmost of the Mariana Islands. Historically, Guam has been administratively separated and is still listed by the United Nations as a “Non-Self-Governing Territory”. These islands remain colonies to this day. Guam is a key US military base for its strategic deployment against China. Base Guam is also used by the German Bundeswehr.

The colonisation of the Mariana Islands

The colonisation of the Mariana Islands, initially by Spain, began in the second half of the 17th century. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães) had reached the islands back in March 1521, but immediately continued his journey westward. Magellan was searching for a sea route past America to Southeast Asia on behalf of the Spanish crown. He soon arrived in the Philippines, where he died in battles against the inhabitants on 27 April 1521. Spain laid claim to the Mariana Islands in 1565, using Guam in particular as a port of call for merchant ships travelling between its colonies on either side of the Pacific, between Mexico and the Philippines. In 1668, the Spanish began their full subjugation of the Mariana Islands as a colony. A series of military operations were fought against the indigenous population, the Chamorro, lasting until 1699. Together with the impact of infectious diseases introduced from Europe for which there was no immunity, violent colonisation cost the lives of a large part of the Chamorro population.[1]

Pawn in the colonial game

The Mariana Islands became a pawn in the rivalries of several colonial powers in the second half of the 19th century. On the one hand, they were coveted by the Germany Empire, which managed to secure certain trading rights in 1885.[2] On the other hand, the archipelago became a target for the United States, which, after the Spanish-American War of 1898, began subjugating Spain’s Pacific colonies in Latin America and the Western Pacific. The latter acquisitions were the Philippines and the Mariana Islands. Following a show of force by the German navy off the coast of the Philippine capital Manila in 1898, known as the Manila Incident, the United States ceded the Northern Mariana Islands to the German Empire in 1899 but managed to retain Guam, the southernmost and largest island of the Mariana archipelago. A structural division between the two parts of the archipelago was thus created by the colonial powers and continues to this day. After the First World War, the Northern Mariana Islands were ceded to Japan, which in turn had to cede them to the United States after American victory in the Second World War. US dominion over Guam has never ceased since 1898.

Citizens without suffrage

The Northern Mariana Islands were incorporated into the United States in 1978 as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Since this status decision was subject to a referendum with a high approval rate, the United Nations removed the CNMI from the list of “Non-Self-Governing Territories” in 1990. The list comprises territories considered to be still under foreign colonial rule and is maintained in the context of the UN’s decolonialisation agenda. Although the inhabitants of the Northern Mariana Islands are US citizens, the archipelago is denied the status of a fully-fledged US state. This means the inhabitants of the islands are not allowed to vote in US presidential elections. The CNMI delegate sent to the US House of Representatives can debate but has no voting rights. There is a US district court for the CNMI territories that generally sits on Saipan. This is why the formal court proceedings against Julian Assange can take place there.[3]

“Neo-colonial anachronism”

The island of Guam has had a very different trajectory. The islanders rejected unification with the Northern Mariana Islands in a 1969 referendum. Efforts to clarify Guam’s status by means of referendum have failed several times. The United Nations continues to include the island on its list of “Non-Self-Governing Territories” and advocates greater self-determination in the spirit of decolonisation. Like the inhabitants of the CNMI, Guam’s local population also have US citizenship yet and are not allowed to vote in US presidential elections. They, too, send a delegate to the House of Representatives without the right to vote on the floor of the House. This is a source of dissatisfaction. Calls for complete independence or at least an upgraded status as a regular US state with regular voting rights have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. Critics describe Guam’s present status frankly as a “neo-colonial anachronism”.[4]

A link in the Second Island Chain

Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are of enormous geostrategic importance for the United States and the West as a whole. They form part of the so-called Second Island Chain, which extends from Japan via the Mariana Islands and Palau to Papua New Guinea. It lies behind the First Island Chain (Japan including the Ryukyu Islands - Taiwan - Philippines - Borneo) and constitutes a kind of fall-back position for an encirclement of China from the Pacific. US forces have a huge and now rapidly expanding presence on Guam, with both the Anderson Air Force Base and the Naval Base Guam. On the one hand, the military bases serve as a staging post for troops and materiel being brought across the Pacific from core US territory to Asia. On the other hand, air strikes on China can easily be launched from Guam ( reported [5]). In this regard, the large US military presence on Guam is likely to be one of the first targets of Chinese defence missiles in the event of war. So the US military has begun to diversify its bases in the Mariana Islands. Among other developments, the US is turning the island of Tinian, one of the Northern Mariana Islands south of Saipan, into a new strategic base.[6]

Bundeswehr in the Pacific

German policymakers and Bundeswehr units have been increasingly active in the region for some time. When the first wide-ranging Asia-Pacific tour by a German warship, the frigate ‘Bayern’, was being scheduled at the end of May 2021, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer paid a visit to Guam. It was reported that her discussions centred on “increased German responsibility and presence in the Indo-Pacific region” and the “importance of German-US military cooperation”.[7] The ‘Bayern’ arrived at Naval Base Guam from Australia in mid-October 2021 and conducted joint war exercises with US forces.[8] It is not yet known whether the frigate ‘Baden-Württemberg’ and the task force supply ship ‘Frankfurt am Main’ will also dock at Guam as part of this year’s Asia-Pacific tour by the German navy. What is clear, however, is that three German Air Force Eurofighters will take part in Pacific Skies, a major air exercise. The German warplanes will undertake a direct flight from Japan to Hawaii. The flight, taking them over Guam, will last around ten and a half hours during which the Luftwaffe Eurofighters are to be refuelled mid-air by the US Air Force.[9]


For more on this topic, see: Colonies in the 21st century (I) and Colonies in the 21st century (II).


[1], [2] see also: Die Fregatte Bayern auf Kolonialfahrt.

[3] Welche Rolle spielt die Insel Saipan? 25.06.2024.

[4] Robert F. Rogers: Destiny’s Landfall. A History of Guam. Revised edition. Hawaii 2011.

[5] See also: Die Fregatte Bayern auf Kolonialfahrt (II).

[6] Mark Rabago: US to spend billions on Northern Marianas island to boost military power. 12.04.2023.

[7] Germany’s Defense Minister made a brief visit to Guam recently. 01.06.2021.

[8] Fregatte Bayern auf Guam. 21.10.2021.

[9] Das wird der längste Eurofighter-Flug aller Zeiten. 16.06.2024. See also: The United Front against China.