OPINION: Pacific defense pact renewal vital to the US amid rising tension with China

OPINION: Pacific defense pact renewal vital to the US amid rising tension with China

By Tommy Remengesau Jr., Opinion Contributor —

KOROR, 20 MAY 2019 — Talk of the trade conflict between the United States and China has captured international headlines for the better part of the past two weeks. But it is in the Western Pacific, where China has been constructing military bases and wooing new allies with multibillion-dollar projects that hostilities would likely erupt if a miscalculation ever turned a trade war into a shooting war. 

It is against this backdrop that I will join the presidents of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) in Washington on Tuesday to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump so we can reaffirm our commitment to the Compact of Free Association (COFA)—an agreement between the U.S. and our nations that has formed the backbone of America’s Pacific military strategy for decades—and continue negotiations for COFA’s final renewal in 2023 for Palau and 2024 for RMI and FSM.

Much has changed since the compact was formed in 1982: The Soviet Union, the U.S.’s former Pacific rival, fell in 1991; Palau became the final compact member to gain independence in 1994; and China has risen as a serious challenge to American dominance of the Pacific Ocean today. Yet, the provisions of the agreement have failed to keep pace by deploying capabilities needed to defend the region against 21st century threats.

In many ways, Palau’s and our neighbors’ strategic importance is the same as it was during World War II, when the islands were the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the Pacific campaign: The territory is the only dry land available for airfields over thousands of miles of blue ocean. Today, however, Japan is one of Palau’s closest partners and a new contest has arisen over the control of nearby South China Sea and the Strait of Taiwan. Having exclusive military access to the Freely Associated States’ waters provides the U.S. with what Admiral Harry Harris, former Head of Pacific Command, described in 2017 as “a measurable advantage in our strategic posture in the Western Pacific.”

Palau’s value, however, goes beyond our real estate. At the United Nations, we are one of America’s most reliable allies, joining with the U.S on more consequential votes than even Canada.  We have also been staunch defenders of Israel and Taiwan, with whom we share the values of free expression and the rule of law. This support has not come without a cost. China policy, for example, restricts travel by its citizens to countries like Palau that recognize the Republic of China, resulting in significant lost revenue from tourism. 

Such steadfast reliability makes Palau and the other Freely Associated States natural allies in the Pentagon’s new Indo-Pacific strategy, a plan to counter Chinese expansionism and its militarization of islands in the region. More details on the approach will be revealed at a defense conference to be held in Singapore at the end of the month, but Palau has already begun to identify its strategic needs in discussions with representatives of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.

First, Palau’s airports on Angaur and Peleliu, scene of the highest casualty rate for U.S Marines in history, critically need modernisation to meet the demands of civilian travel, let alone to serve as a base of operations if, God forbid, an armed conflict were to break out.

Second, we also lack a fully functioning maritime port capable of accommodating the needs of today’s advanced civilian and military vessels.

Finally, Palau would welcome a larger U.S. armed forces and law enforcement presence in our archipelago as a deterrent, yes, but also to train local citizens to take on an even greater role in the partnership. Palauans (and citizens of the other Freely Associated States) serve in the U.S. military at one of the highest rates of any population. COFA is most effective when we share its responsibilities.

For over 75 years, Palauans and Americans have worked together, and some have made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure peace, prosperity and stability in the Western Pacific and around the world. But the world today isn’t like what it was back then, and the time has come for our alliance to adapt…. PACNEWS

Tommy Remengesau Jr. is the president of Palau.