Koror--The Pacific region has become a stage for escalating tensions, with the Palau Senate's recent decision to reject the deployment of missile batteries on its territory serving as a stark reminder of the complex security dynamics at play.
Just four days after the conclusion of a biannual bilateral Joint Committee Meeting between the Palau government and the United States, the Senate of the Olbiil Era Kelulau (Palau National Congress) passed a resolution opposing the proposed missile installation. This move marks a significant divergence in views on Palau's security strategy, highlighting the concerns of many Palauans about the potential consequences of hosting such a sensitive military asset.
While the Senate joint resolution still requires the approval of the House of Delegates to express the official position of the Olbiil Era Kelulau, it articulated for the first time the concerted views of lawmakers taking on President Whipps’ positions on major policy positions.
President Surangel Whipps Jr. has been a strong advocate of missile deployment, viewing it as a necessary measure to safeguard Palau against potential threats.
However, the Senate's resolution reflects a growing sentiment among Palauans, who are worried that hosting missile batteries could make the country a target for adversaries, exposing it to undue risks. This decision underscores the delicate balance between national security and the potential for unwanted entanglement in regional conflicts.
The Senate's resolution marks a notable assertion of its role as a check on presidential power in Palau's foreign affairs decisions. It represents the first instance in which lawmakers have publicly challenged President Whipps' unilateral decision to invite the deployment of Patriot missiles. This development highlights the evolving political landscape in Palau, where the Senate is increasingly asserting its voice in shaping the country's foreign policy trajectory.
The Joint Committee Meeting, held under the auspices of the Compact of Free Association, is a mechanism for ongoing dialogue between Palau and the United States on security and defense matters. The COFA, which came into force in 1994, grants the United States the responsibility for defending Palau, while also recognizing Palau's sovereignty and self-determination.
Rear Adm. Gregory Huffman, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command senior military official for Palau, emphasized the importance of understanding the mutual needs and responsibilities of both countries in ensuring regional security.
“We are in a period of change and strategic growth in our defense posture in this region,” Huffman said in a media statement released on Nov. 17. “It is crucial that we have a full understanding of our individual and mutual needs as two countries in partnership – so that our military can successfully protect and defend our people and our freedoms as we have promised,”
However, Palau Senate President Hokkons Baules has expressed concern that a military buildup in Palau would primarily serve U.S. interests rather than Palau’s with a military buildup in the country.
“This is a U.S. interest matter, the Indo-Pacific,” he said in an earlier statement. “We senators believe Palau has no enemies. And we believe the U.S. should only step in when there is conflict. This build-up is U.S. a interest, not ours.”
The ongoing construction of the multi-million dollar tactical mobile over-the-horizon radar in Palau has raised eyebrows among some Palauans, who fear it could make the country a target for potential adversaries. President Whipps acknowledged this risk but maintained that the security benefits outweighed the potential drawbacks.
Several live-fire Patriot missile tests have been conducted in Palau. President Whipps said the tests were designed to assess the process of missile deployment from Guam in response to potential threats. At a national leadership meeting, the president said Palau’s leaders believed that the three-hour deployment time was too long and senators at the meeting had recommended a permanent installation. However, Senate President Baules said the Senate as a whole has not made that recommendation.
“Some people say it makes us a target, but I say presence is deterrence,” Whipps said.
President Whipps has repeatedly urged the U.S. Congress to renew its economic assistance commitment to Palau under the COFA, highlighting the importance of maintaining strong ties between the two nations. He expressed concerns about China's increasing economic influence in the region, emphasizing the need for continued U.S. support in safeguarding Palau's sovereignty and economic independence.
Although the Palau National Congress has ratified the Second Compact Review Agreement, which secures $890 million in economic assistance for Palau over the next two decades, the U.S. Congress has yet to approve the agreement as part of the overall U.S. federal budget.
Palau's decision to reject missile deployment underscores the complex security dynamics shaping the Pacific region. While maintaining strong alliances is crucial for Palau's security, the country must also carefully consider the potential consequences of hosting sensitive military assets.
The Senate's resolution reflects the growing concerns of Palauans about the potential for unintended embroilment in regional conflicts and the need to prioritize the country's own security interests. As Palau navigates this evolving geopolitical landscape, finding the right balance between security cooperation and national sovereignty will remain a critical challenge.
Ongerung Kambes Kesolei is the editor Tia Belau and host of Kausisechakl Weekly Talk Show. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org