The United States has been increasing its military activities in Palau in recent months amid rising tensions with China, according to Palau’s top diplomat who is visiting the United States ahead of the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit next week in Washington.
Palau Minister of State Gustav Aitaro urged countries to find alternative Pacific shipping routes in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan that would make the Taiwan Strait an unsafe international shipping lane.
“Recently, we’ve had a lot of visits from the U.S. military to Palau: constructing radar systems in Palau, constructing airports, which does not mean providing us [with] guaranteed security, but at least it’s a deterrence measure,” Aitaro said during an event on Monday hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Aitaro said “if the conflict [in the Taiwan Strait] does arise, the next alternative route is through Palau to Japan,” and that’s why it’s important for Palau, Japan and the United States to have a sit-down discussion on potential scenarios.
“Deal with it before it happens. Let’s not wait till it’s too late,” Aitaro added.
Palau is one of the few countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Aitaro’s remarks came as U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.
In an interview Sunday with the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” Biden, for the fourth time since taking office in 2021, said the United States would respond militarily to a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force.
Peace, stability across Taiwan Strait
“The president’s remarks speak for themselves. I do think our policy has been consistent and is unchanged and will continue,” said Kurt Campbell, White House National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.
“Our primary goal is the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, to secure and stabilize the status quo, to make sure that there is a healthy dialogue and discussion, try to avoid escalation situations of inadvertence,” Campbell added during the same event that took place in New York on Monday.
The Taiwan Strait is one of the busiest shipping lanes and the primary route for ships from China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan heading to Europe, the United States and all markets along the way. This year, 88% of largest container ships passed through it.
Freely associated states
The Republic of Palau is located close to the U.S. territories of Guam and is one of the Freely Associated States (FAS) situated closest to the South China Sea. FAS refers to Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia that had signed treaties with the United States.
Under the soon-to-expire treaties known as Compacts of Free Association, the three Pacific Island nations receive grant aid and security guarantees from the U.S. government. FAS citizens can live and work in the U.S. without a visa.
In exchange, the United States has the right to build military bases in these three island nations and can deny outsider access to those countries’ waters, airspace and land.
A State Department internal document from April said supporting U.S. military efforts, “especially given plans to base vital radar sites in the country, as well as an increased tempo of U.S. military training and exercises,” are among the top priorities of the U.S. embassy in Palau.
US-Pacific Island Country Summit
Next week, the White House will host its first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit. Scheduled from September 28 to 29, officials said the two-day, in-person summit shows the United States’ enduring partnership with Pacific Island nations on key issues that include maritime security, climate change, and advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Biden will host a dinner with leaders of Pacific Island countries at the White House. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry will host a session on climate change at the State Department.
Other meetings include sessions at the Chamber of Commerce, USAID, the Pentagon, the Department of Interior, Homeland Security and at the headquarters of the Coast Guard, where new initiatives will be announced.
Senior U.S. officials had raised alarm of Chinese ambitions to seek a military footprint in the Indo-Pacific, while admitting that next week’s summit is part of Washington’s plan to remedy a lack of strategic approach to Pacific Island nations.
After decades of relative inattention from policymakers in Washington and Beijing, the Pacific Islands region is emerging as an arena of strategic competition, which has significant implications for U.S. security interests, according to a report by the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace (USIP.)
Citing recent developments that caused the U.S. concerns in the region, such as a secret security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China that’s seen as likely laying the groundwork for a Chinese military presence, the USIP report suggested Washington can start investing more in its closest partners such as the FAS to limit China’s influence in the region.