The western Pacific nation of Palau has urged the United States military to build bases on its territory – in the heart of a region where Washington is pushing back against growing Chinese influence.
US defense secretary Mark Esper visited the island nation last week as part of a Pacific tour, accusing Beijing of a “malign influence” and “ongoing destabilising activities” across the region.
Palau’s president Tommy Remengesau Jr later revealed he had told Esper the US military was welcome to build facilities in his country, an archipelago about 1500km east of the Philippines.
In a letter apparently hand-delivered to the defence secretary, Remengesau urged the US to commit to military infrastructure on its islands.
“Palau’s request to the US military remains simple – build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly,” the president’s letter said.
Addressed to Esper and marked “by hand delivery, Koror, Palau,” the letter said the nation of 2o,000 was eager to host land bases, port facilities and airfields for the US military.
Remengesau also suggested a US Coast Guard presence would help Palau patrol its vast marine reserve, which covers an area of ocean the size of Spain and is difficult for the tiny nation to monitor.
Palau is an independent nation, but it has no military and the US is responsible for its defence under a compact of free association signed with Washington upon independence in 1994.
Under the deal, the US military has access to the islands, although it currently has no troops permanently stationed there.
“We should use the mechanisms of the compact to establish a regular US military presence in Palau,” Remengesau’s letter said.
“The US military’s right to establish defence sites in the Republic of Palau has been under-utilised for the entire duration of the compact.”
He said bases in Palau would not only increase US military preparedness but also help the local economy, which is struggling as the Covid-19 pandemic has halted tourism, its main industry.
Remengesau has used the spectre of growing Chinese influence to encourage greater US investment in Palau.
Ahead of a meeting with president Donald Trump last year, he urged “a stronger US presence in the Pacific, we want to see that happen”.
“There are so many things that the US 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.”
While Palau has sought to welcome Chinese tourists, and Chinese investment – particularly noticeable in hotels in the capital Koror – the Pacific nation has consistently resisted Chinese political influence in the archipelago.
Palau is one of just four remaining Pacific nations that recognise Taiwan, after Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing last year.
But the pressure on Palau to make the same switch is significant. Tourism accounts for more than 40% of the country’s GDP, and since November 2017, the Chinese government has banned tour operators in that country selling package tours to Palau, with the stroke of a pen knocking out a huge and growing proportion of the tourist market.
Palau’s compact of free association with the US – which also brings significant financial aid, and gives Palauans the right to travel to, live and work in the US – is being renegotiated this year. The current compact expires in 2024.
But it will not be Remengesau’s administration that sees in the new partnership or welcomes new military bases. Like the US, whose election cycle Palau follows, the presidency of the Pacific nation is term-limited, and Remengesau’s second four-year term ends following elections on 3 November.