Palau invites U.S. to build military bases amid China’s influence push

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Top Stories | Sep 18, 2020
Agence France-Presse

The tiny Pacific nation of Palau has urged the United States military to build bases on its territory — which lies in a region where Washington is pushing back against growing influence attempts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited the island nation in September 2020 and accused the PRC of “ongoing destabilizing activities” in the Indo-Pacific.

Palauan President Thomas Remengesau revealed that he told Esper the U.S. military was welcome to build facilities in his country, an archipelago about 1,500 kilometers east of the Philippines.

“Palau’s request to the U.S. military remains simple — build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly,” he said in a letter to the U.S. defense chief.

The note said the nation of 22,000 was open to hosting land bases, port facilities and airfields. Remengesau also suggested a U.S. Coast Guard presence in Palau to help patrol its vast marine reserve, which covers an area the size of Spain and is difficult for the nation to monitor. While Palau is an independent nation, it has no military and the U.S. is responsible for its defense under an agreement 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.

“We should use the mechanisms of the Compact to establish a regular U.S. military presence in Palau,” Remengesau said. Remengesau said bases in Palau would not only increase U.S. military preparedness but also help the local economy, which is struggling as the COVID-19 pandemic has halted tourism, its main industry.

A U.S. military radar facility is planned for Palau, but construction has been suspended because of the pandemic, with the island nation keen to retain its virus-free status. In addition to its close U.S. ties, Palau is one of Taiwan’s four  allies in the Pacific.

The Chinese Communist Party, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory, has tried to win over Taipei’s allies in the Pacific, persuading the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to switch sides in 2019.

Palau has refused, prompting the PRC to effectively ban Chinese tourists from visiting the island country in 2018.

“It would appear that President Remengesau sees this, in part, as a potential economic solution to counter Palau’s significant dependence on tourism — including Chinese tourism,” said Anna Powles, an expert in Pacific security at New Zealand’s Massey University.

While not naming the PRC directly, Remengesau told Esper that “destabilizing actors have already stepped forward to take advantage” of the virus-related economic crises that small island nations are experiencing.

He said the PRC 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.

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