May 15, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

China has emerged as one of the key players in the Pacific region and at the changing of the guard of Palau’s leadership in January, new President, Surangel Whipps Jr. was expected to concentrate on the pandemic and its economic fallout. Foreign policy was not expected to be an immediate priority.

But even before President Whipps took his oath of office he took a strong stance on China's growing influence in the region.

 In an interview in January, a week before he has sworn into office, he said he considered the United States and Taiwan as Palau's "real friends."

Whipps, 52, added Palau will continue to recognise the United States as a steadfast partner against China's  "bullying" of smaller nations.

Palau is one of just 15 nations in the world which have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, a number which has dwindled in recent years. 

"It’s important for countries to have shared values  support each and work together. "There is a competition, yes (between US and China) but that's their competition. It's about what we believe," he said.

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The outgoing US Ambassador to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu and Tonga says he was sickened, saddened and a bit angered by the scenes of violence at the US Capitol building in Washington DC  last week. 

Ambassador Joseph Cella leaves Suva and his role as America's top diplomat in Fiji in nine days. An apppointee of President Donald Trump, he spent just over the year  as Ambassador, and has championed US support for the Pacific's private sector and entrepreneurs amongst other causes during his short tenure.  Today in Suva he hosted a roundtable on "building bridges between civil society, business and government.'

Asked about Fiji's reaction to last week's riots, and whether the US's international partners should be worried about the events, Ambassador Cella said:  "Having worked at the historically hallowed and pristine halls of Congress, what I saw sickened me, it was saddening, a bit angry. To hear that a US capital police officer was clubbed in the head with a fire extinguisher and killed, awful. But our principles and truths are timeless, that our republic is based on and it will endure this. This will pass, don't know when, soon enough it will but [I'm] always optimisitic we have endured very very grave difficulties in the not so distant past and we have come out stronger again and I'm confident we will too this time."   

He has asked the people of Fiji to "pray for the United States".

"Over the arc of the history of the United States, over the arc of the history of the Republic of Fiji, we've had undulations. We've rode those out, some have been more challenging and uncertain than others. We're at another one of those moments, and I hope and trust and pray that the better angels will prevail of people."

Prior to coming to the Pacific, he served as the Catholic Liaison for the Donald J. Trump for President Campaign and managed the campaign’s Catholic Advisory Group.  He also served on the Presidential Transition Team.   

The Rim of the Pacific military exercise will proceed  from August 17-31 as an at-sea only event in light of COVID-19 concerns.

The Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet will host the biennial maritime exercise.  The theme of RIMPAC 2020 is “Capable, Adaptive, Partners.”

“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that our maritime forces work together to protect vital shipping lanes and ensure freedom of navigation through international waters,” said Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. John Aquilino. “And we will operate safely, using prudent mitigation measures.” There will be no social events ashore, and a minimal footprint of staff ashore for command and control, logistics, and other support functions.

Around the world, governments have placed restrictions on port calls by cruise ships, concerned about the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus amongst passengers. A crisis in the US territory of Guam involving the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has highlighted the same concern for military vessels.

Deployed in the Western Pacific, the US warship has become the centre of a political storm with the spread of Covid-19 amongst its 5,000-strong crew. After visiting Vietnam in March, the aircraft carrier travelled to Guam, the US territory of 170,000 people in the western Pacific. Authorities now believe a number of the carrier’s sailors were infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus during shore leave in Vietnam.

Earlier this week, there were 940 active cases of COVID-19 amongst sailors from the ship .  Anchored off Guam, the warship’s commanding officer Captain Brett Crozier sought permission to relocate up to 3,000 personnel onshore, to limit the rate of infection in the cramped quarters below decks. Crozier’s memo to US military authorities was leaked to the media, and he was relieved of command.

As the US Navy moved sailors from the stricken aircraft carrier into empty hotels on Guam, many indigenous Chamoru expressed concern. On 1 April, the Chamoru women’s organisation I Hagan Famalao’an Guåhan wrote to Guam Governor Lou Leon Guerrero opposed to the housing of US sailors in tourist hotels. The letter called for sailors to be accommodated in the US military bases that take up a third of the islands land area, such as Apra Harbour Naval Base and Andersen Air Force Base.

Guam only has two civilian hospitals and the territory’s health service is already stretched as local Covid-19 infection rates increase, with more than 130 confirmed diagnoses (including four deaths) at time of writing. The Guam government turned away the cruise ship MV Westerman in February, fearful of spreading Covid-19 from infected passengers. But as a US territory, Guam has no authority to block an American warship from its harbours.

More than 25,000 military personnel from 20 countries - including Australia, New Zealand, France and Britain - are scheduled to join the RIMPAC exercises. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has previously participated in RIMPAC, but has been excluded this year because of rising US-China tensions.

In Hawaii, the local tourism and sex industries welcome big-spending sailors on shore leave, but indigenous Kanaka Maoli have long opposed the use of their islands for US military wargames and weapons testing. This concern is all the greater during the latest pandemic. The first case of Covid-19 in Hawai’i was reported on 6 March: a month later, Hawaii’s state governor announced there were 371 confirmed infections, with numbers still rising.

At the last RIMPAC exercise in 2018, crews from visiting warships were allowed onshore for rest and recreation, putting them in daily contact with civilians.  Church, community and peace groups have been petitioning US politicians for cancellation of the exercises. 

The Australian and New Zealand governments have not yet announced whether RAN and RNZN warships will join RIMPAC 2020. An Australian Department of Defence spokesperson told Islands Business: “In line with the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and Australian Government, Defence is currently reconsidering the status of its upcoming events to ensure the safety of personnel involved.”

After widespread popular protest in Okinawa and Guam against the basing of US Marines and their families, Australia agreed to host some marines through an annual rotation in the Northern Territory. Both Canberra and Washington claim that the Marines are not formally based in Australia, but the regular rotation ensures that US boots are on the ground for most of the year. Despite this, the latest rotation of 2,500 Marines through Darwin has now been cancelled by Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, following the decision of the Northern Territory to tighten border controls and prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

The government hopes to be back in business next year, with Reynolds stressing: “Any decision in relation to the 2020 Marine Rotational Force - Darwin (MRF-D) in no way affects Australia's commitment to host next year’s, or subsequent, MRF-D rotations.”

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