BANGKOK — American troop deployments can spark tensions and resistance in other parts of the world, but the tiny nation of Palau has invited the U.S. military to build ports, bases and airfields on its Pacific islands in the face of rising Chinese economic intimidation, according to defiant President Surangel Whipps.
The Palau response is an illustration of a larger phenomenon at work around Asia. As China grows increasingly wealthy, powerful and assertive, more and more of its regional neighbors are speaking up and pushing back.
“President Whipps’ frank assessment of Chinese pressure and invitation to host U.S. bases are unusually blunt for a Pacific leader,” Australia Pacific Security College Director Meg Keen said in an interview.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this week that it is getting “harder to reconcile” China’s desire for a greater role in world affairs with its repressive policies at home. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin tweeted an extraordinarily undiplomatic and expletive-laden message to Beijing on Monday in a dispute over Chinese vessels operating inside Manila’s maritime economic zone.
“You’re like an ugly oaf forcing your attentions on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend; not to father a Chinese province,” Mr. Locsin wrote. He semi-apologized a day later for his language.
There is a “high-stakes rivalry going on” between China and the U.S. for influence in capitals across East Asia and the Pacific, said Ms. Keen — and even tiny players can find themselves on the front lines. Island nations such as Palau, paradoxically, are more valuable because of their isolation, which gives them undisputed claim to large swaths of the ocean waters surrounding them.
“Pacific nations may have small populations and land mass but should be seen as ‘large ocean states’ intimately connected to other island nations of the ‘blue continent,’” she said. “China is wanting to bring as many Pacific nations into their Belt and Road network as possible so it has access across the Pacific to the Americas and Antarctica.”
Pacific island nations could be exploited by either side if hostile military action erupts between Beijing and Washington, analysts said.
Up until four years ago, Beijing courted Palau’s 21,000 population by allowing free-spending Chinese tourists to flood a handful of tropical sites on the island nation’s 180 square miles — slightly smaller than Guam. The number of Chinese tourists peaked in 2015 at 87,000, about half of all tourist arrivals, according to Palau’s Bureau of Immigration and the South Pacific Tourism Organization.
Despite the wooing, Palau would not cancel its 1999 diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, a key prize in China’s global diplomatic quest.
Miffed by the diplomatic rejection, China’s communist leadership pulled the plug on the lucrative package tours in 2017, and Palau’s tourism businesses sank.
“That’s just an example of how [China’s spending] is a kind of bait,” Mr. Whipps said in an interview with Agence France-Presse last month. “You do this for me, then we expect this and this.”
President Xi Jinping is not the only Chinese official applying the squeeze, he said.
“I’ve had meetings with [other Chinese government officials], and the first thing they said to me before, on a phone call, was ‘What you’re doing is illegal. Recognizing Taiwan is illegal. You need to stop it.’ That’s the tone they use. We shouldn’t be told we can’t be friends with so-and-so.”
In March, Mr. Whipps told Taiwanese reporters that China’s treatment of his country amounted to an abusive relationship. “I use this example: You don’t beat your wife to make them love you.”
A visit by Esper
Born in Baltimore, Mr. Whipps renounced his U.S. citizenship, became a Palau senator and in January 2021 was elected president.
Among 15 other countries that have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the only other Pacific islands are the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu.
The U.S.-Chinese rivalry in the region is so fierce that Palau found itself hosting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite in August. Mr. Esper said the visit in part was to express thanks to the hundreds of Palau citizens who, under a 1994 agreement, were serving in the U.S. military. The rate of participation is higher than that of many U.S. states.
“We are grateful to the people of Palau for their enduring contributions to the United States armed forces, and we honor those who laid down their lives in defense of both of our nations,” said Mr. Esper, the first U.S. defense secretary ever to visit the country.
Palau is “a little country, maybe, but they punch above their weight when it comes to enlistment rates in the U.S. military,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for East Asia Heino Klinck told the Military Times. At least six Palauans were serving in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
Palau has made no secret of its readiness to host U.S. military equipment and assets.
“Palau’s request to the U.S. military remains simple: Build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly,” then-President Tommy Remengesau reportedly told Mr. Esper and Mr. Braithwaite.
The U.S. Army used Palau’s territory in 2020 to train 200 troops — the Army’s first exercise there in nearly 40 years.
Palau’s location on a liquid “North Pacific pathway” linking Hawaii and Guam makes the nation a key strategic prize. In 1986, the U.S. and Palau signed the Compact of Free Association allowing the Pentagon to be responsible for Palau’s defense.
The U.S. and Palau also share a post-World War II political. Washington administered several Pacific islands, including Palau, until they achieved independence.
“China is disadvantaged by America’s 70-year head start in the Pacific since the end of World War II and by Palau’s staunch support for the U.S., Taiwan and democratic Western allies,” a Bangkok-based geopolitical analyst with experience in the Pacific region said in an interview. “On the other hand, the U.S. spent the last two decades forfeiting much of the ‘First Island Chain’ to China.”
That “first chain” in the Pacific includes Taiwan, Okinawa, the Philippines and other islands closest to China on the front line of the struggle for influence in the highly trafficked and highly contested South China and East China Seas, where Beijing and Washington compete to dominate with their strategy and policies.
Palau is in the “Second Island Chain,” closer to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. It links southern Japan, Guam and islands farther south across the Western Pacific Ocean. Although Palau’s primary interest is its economic survival, analysts say, the stakes are far greater and far more political for Beijing and Washington.