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Pentagon & Beijing In Pacific's Liquid Heart

Tiny Palau invited the Pentagon to build ports, bases and airfields on its Pacific islands, after Chinese President Xi Jinping bullied Palau by destabilizing its fragile economy, according to defiant President Surangel Whipps.

"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.

There is a "high-stakes rivalry going on," between China and the U.S., said Ms. Keen.

"Pacific nations may have small populations and landmass, but should be seen as 'large ocean states' intimately connected to other island nations of the 'Blue continent'.

"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," she said.

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, China courted Palau's 21,000 population, allowing Yuan-spending Chinese tourists to flood a handful of tropical sites on the islands' 180 sq. miles -- slightly smaller than Guam.

Incoming Chinese tourists peaked at 87,000 during 2015, about half of all tourist arrivals, according to Palau's Bureau of Immigration and the South Pacific Tourism Organization.

But Palau wouldn't cancel its 1999 diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

Beijing, miffed by the diplomatic rejection, pulled the plug on China's lucrative package tours to Palau in 2017.

Palau's tourism businesses sank.

"That's just an example of how it [China's spending] is a kind of bait," President Whipps told Agence-France Press (AFP) earlier this month (April).

"You do this for me, then we expect this and this."

Chinese President Xi's officials are also bullying Mr. Whipps, he said.

"I've had meetings with them, 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 Palau was like, "If you are in a relationship -- I use this example -- you don’t beat your wife to make them love you.”

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Whipps renounced his U.S. citizenship, became a Palau senator and, in January 2021, president.

Among 15 other countries recognizing Taiwan, the only other Pacific islands to do so are the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu.

Palau's 340 islands north of the nearby equator, are 600 miles [900 kilometers] east of the Philippines.

In 2020, then-defense secretary Mark Esper and then-Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite visited Palau.

"Palau’s request to the U.S. military remains simple: build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly,” Palau's then-President Tommy Remengesau reportedly told Mr. Esper and Mr. Braithwaite.

The U.S. Army used Palau's territory during 2020 to train 200 troops -- the Army's first exercise there in nearly 40 years.

Also in 2020, "about 100 U.S. Marines and sailors from Task Force Koa Moana, of the I Marine Expeditionary Force, were in Palau," the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported.

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, said. 

At least six Palauans died in U.S. uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

“We are concerned about China continuing to try to flip countries that recognize Taiwan today, to establish diplomatic relations with China instead," Mr. Klinck told the Military Times.

Palau's location on a liquid "North Pacific pathway" linking Hawaii and Guam make the nation vital to U.S. interests, it reported.

In 1986, the U.S. and Palau signed a Compact of Free Association (COFA) allowing the Pentagon to be responsible for Palau's defense.

The U.S. and Palau also share a post-World War II political knot after Washington administered several Pacific islands, including Palau, until it achieved independence in 1994.

"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, dispensing its blood, treasure, and political capital in the sandbox," he said.

That first chain in the Pacific includes Taiwan, Okinawa, the Philippines and other islands closest to China on the front-line of China-U.S. rivalry.

It also includes today's increasingly weaponized 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 -- which links southern Japan, Guam, and islands further south including Palau, across the Western Pacific Ocean.

"For Palau and other Pacific island states, what's at stake is primarily economic -- fishing, tourism, etc. -- with military and security issues being a means to that end," the analyst said, asking not to be identified.

"For the U.S. and China, it is the opposite, as they are willing to employ economic means -- the U.S. Compact of Free Association, China's blockage of tours, etc. -- to establish or ensure their military posture."

Palau's islands were bloodied during World War II when 1,800 U.S. Marines perished and 8,000 suffered injuries in the 1944 Battle of Peleliu while advancing against Japan's positions across the Pacific.

In 1949, U.S.-backed Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) forces retreated from China to nearby Taiwan island to escape Mao Zedong's victorious Communist Party.

Taiwan continues to resist China's claim to the now-modern, relatively wealthy island which has been heavily financed by the U.S. since the 1950s.

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new nonfiction book, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" are available at https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

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