The tiny Pacific nation of Palau, an ally of Taiwan, has urged the United States military to build bases on its territory. Palau is an archipelago with a population of only 22,000 people. It is located about 930 miles east of the Philippines. It lies in a region where Washington is pushing back against growing Chinese influence.
Palau President Tommy Remengesau wrote a letter to the Pentagon in which, without naming China, said that “destabilizing actors have already stepped forward to take advantage” of the virus-related economic crises facing small island nations.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper made an unprecedented visit to the island nation last week, the first-ever visit by a U.S. Defense chief. He reiterated the Palauan president’s comments accusing Beijing of being a “malign influence” as well as conducting “ongoing destabilizing activities” in the Pacific.
President Remengesau later revealed that he told Esper that the U.S. military was welcome to build facilities in his country. “Palau’s request to the U.S. military remains simple — build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly,” he said in the letter.
The letter addressed to Esper and marked “by hand delivery” said the tiny island nation was open to hosting land bases, port facilities, and airfields for the U.S. military.
“Mr. Secretary, it has been a great relief to hear you, and other top U.S. officials, recognize the complex reality of Indo-Pacific security — which is as threatened by predatory economics as it is by military aggression,” he wrote.
“There are so many things that the U.S. can show leadership, as you can see China seems to be the main nation showing initiative and aggressively coming to the Pacific and establishing their mark.”
President Remengesau also suggested a U.S. Coast Guard presence in Palau to help patrol its vast marine reserve, which covers a large area of ocean. It is difficult for the tiny nation to monitor it because it has no military. The United States is responsible for Palau’s defense under an agreement with Washington called the Compact of Free Association.
Under the deal, the U.S. military has access to the islands, although it currently has no troops permanently stationed there. However, with a resurgent and increasingly hostile Chinese presence in the region, Palau wants to change that.
“We should use the mechanisms of the Compact to establish a regular U.S. military presence in Palau,” Remengesau said.
“The U.S. military’s right to establish defense sites in the Republic of Palau has been under-utilized for the entire duration of the Compact,” he added. An American military radar facility is planned for Palau but construction has been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic as Palau does not want the virus on its shores.
President Remengesau said bases in Palau would not only increase U.S. military preparedness and help check the Chinese but also help the local economy, which is struggling as the coronavirus pandemic has halted tourism. Tourism is the country’s main industry accounting for more than 40 percent of its GDP.
Palau is also one of Taiwan’s few remaining allies in the Pacific. The Chinese have pushed hard for them to switch recognition from Taiwan to Bejing’s communist government.
Palau has refused, despite the fact that the country has sought to welcome Chinese tourists and Chinese investments that are particularly noticeable in hotels in the capital Koror. Palau’s refusal met with a prompt Beijing response: Since November 2017, the Chinese government has banned tour operators from selling package tours to Palau, which destroyed a huge and growing proportion of Palau’s tourist market.
During Esper’s visit last week, President Remengesau said China was offering cheap loans to island nations to win their loyalty.
“That has an impact on how people view the relationship with those who help them,” he said.
Palau was the scene of savage fighting between U.S. Marines and the Japanese from September to November of 1944. In the battle of Peleliu, nearly 3,000 U.S. Marines and over 10,000 Japanese were killed.