The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or CNMI, is a chain of 14 islands in the north-west Pacific. It is self-governing, but linked politically to the US.
The economy relies on tourist arrivals, mostly from Japan, and clothing exports. It is vulnerable to downturns in both.
The CNMI is exempt from US minimum wage and immigration laws; this has helped to drive a billion-dollar garment trade which employs thousands of migrant workers, many of them from China and the Philippines. Migrants outnumber the indigenous Chamarro and Carolinian populations.
The industry was dealt a blow in 2005 when, under liberalised world trade rules, the US scrapped import quotas on Chinese-made garments.
Economic woes were compounded when, months later, Japan Airlines ended flights to the territory, hitting the tourist trade.
Spain proclaimed sovereignty in the 16th century. The diseases brought by the early European settlers decimated the indigenous population. The islands came under German, and then Japanese, control in the 20th century.
The islands saw some of the heaviest fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Japan lost control of the main island, Saipan, after US forces invaded in June 1944. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians perished in the bitterly-fought campaign.
The battle for Saipan was a turning point in the Pacific war, allowing the island of Tinian to become a staging post for the 1945 US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the war, the Northern Marianas were governed by Washington as a UN-mandated Pacific trust territory. The islands sought political union with the US in the mid-1970s. CNMI residents are US citizens. The territory receives millions of dollars in aid from Washington.
In November 2008 Gregorio Sablan was elected as the Marianas first nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives. The islands are the last US territory to receive representation in Congress.
The CNMI is home to several active volcanos; Anatahan, north of Saipan, has been erupting on and off since 2003.
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