By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The U.S. military’s plan to install a warning radar in Palau makes the Pacific country a “target” for potential foreign aggressors, President Surangel Whipps Jr. said, stressing that the risk must be worth it.
And with China sticking around on the periphery, Whipps told U.S. lawmakers that Palau-U.S. relations “cannot be taken for granted.”
"China has offered to send more tourists than ever and make huge investments in new industries," Whipps said, testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives' Indo-Pacific Task Force on July 18.
“We need constant policy-level attention,” Whipps said, urging the U.S. Congress to take action on Washington’s pledge to renew its economic assistance to Palau under the Compact of Free Association.
Through a memorandum of agreement signed after the conclusion of the compact negotiation, Palau accepted Washington’s offer of $890 million in economic assistance for 20 years beginning Oct. 1, 2024.
Whipps said the pledged assistance under the Palau Congress-ratified agreement would “provide needed financial stability” for Palau.
Under the compact, the U.S. is duty-bound to provide economic assistance in exchange for access to Palau’s land, water and airspace for military operations.
Besides allowing the U.S. to conduct military exercises in the country, Palau will host the U.S. military's tactical mobile over-the-horizon radar that “will support air domain awareness and maritime domain awareness requirements over the Western Pacific region.”
The $118 million project is expected to be up and running by 2026. Gilbane Federal will build the reinforced concrete pads and foundations that will support the radar’s installation.
“Palau is the westernmost freely associated state. We have a land mass similar in size to Guam and easily the size of Texas,” Whipps said. “We provide land needed for U.S. defense.”
The radar will be used primarily to monitor China's movement in the region, where Beijing has been conducting ballistic missile tests and amplifying its threats to take over Taiwan.
“We are on the frontline of competition and not just because their early warning radar makes us a target,” Whipps said.
During the years of the U.S. government’s lukewarm treatment of Palau, Whipps said, China wooed the country with investments and tourism.
“Our familiar relationship was significantly undermined by the failure to implement the 2010 review agreement for eight years due to internal U.S. political reasons,” he said.
China was Palau’s main source market for visitors until Beijing banned tourists to the Pacific nation in 2018 due to its refusal to drop its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Whipps said China’s carrot and stick approach proved disastrous for Palau’s economy, which continues to ache from a significant decline in tourism.
At this juncture, Whipps said enacting the compact legislation “is critical” as it would provide Palau with the “needed financial stability for 20 years.”
“This legislation is geared toward growing Palau’s resilience, not only through its economic assistance but through a robust joint economic advisory group and then annual economic consultations,” he said.
Besides the negotiated compact-related agreements, the Palau leader also asked the U.S. to reestablish the Office of Freely Associated States Affairs under the Department of State with representatives from the Department of the Interior and Department of Defense.
“It was canceled because some at the State Department wanted to treat us like other island nations. But our relationships are much closer than the U.S. has with any other nation,” Whipps said. “None lets the U.S. exercise their aspect of sovereignty.”
Whipps also requested the U.S. government to restore the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coverage for Palau.
“Other nations have helped us after typhoons,” he said. “We are seeing FEMA helping Guam after Typhoon Mawar.”