The Pacific Island Country (PIC) of Palau has asked the United States to increase patrols of its waters after several incursions by Chinese vessels into its exclusive economic zone, Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr. said in mid-June 2023.
Whipps said he would also welcome a bigger U.S. military presence in the country, with troops stationed alongside existing coast guard and civil action teams in the strategic region.
“No matter what, we’re going to be in the center of whatever’s happening, so it’s important that we’re protected,” he said during a visit to Tokyo, adding that “to get peace, you have to project strength.”
Asked about the incursions, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the vessels had taken shelter and did not conduct surveys or investigations.
Palau, a remote archipelago of coral and volcanic islands in the western Pacific Ocean that’s home to just over 20,000 people, has a decadesold pact with Washington under which the U.S. is responsible for the PIC’s defense and also provides economic assistance.
The U.S. has similar pacts in the region with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, and also signed a defense cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea in May 2023.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) wants to increase its influence in the Pacific and signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in 2022 that raised concern over a potential Chinese military base in the region.
Palau identified Chinese vessels in its waters as recently as May 2023, when a ship appeared to be surveying an area near fiber-optic cables vital to the country’s communications, Whipps said.
He said he will address the incursions at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting in November 2023. The forum in 2022 rejected Beijing’s push to sign a security and trade deal with 10 of its 18 members.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin praised “small island states” such as Palau in a speech in Singapore in early June 2023 and expressed deep appreciation for the Palau-U.S. partnership during a 2021 meeting with Whipps.
Palau has hosted U.S. military exercises, and the U.S. plans to install over-the-horizon radar in the country by 2026.