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US Defense secretary's visit to Palau raises questions

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KOROR (ABC/Pacnews) — A flying visit by the U.S Defense Secretary Mark Esper to Palau has raised questions on the island among locals but also in China.

Despite the longstanding relationship between Washington and Koror, it's believed that Esper is the first U.S Defense secretary to visit Palau.

His five-hour visit to Palau on Friday in the middle of a global pandemic and just months out from the U.S presidential election raised eyebrows in some sections of the Chinese media, with claims that the Secretary “seems to be crafting a military path to compete with China.”

Many Palau locals saw it that way too, with the former Sen. Joel Toribiong saying he feels that Palau is being used as a pawn in a bigger geopolitical game.

“Why is he here, just to protect the interest of freedom and liberty of all? But it's basically in the interest of the United States of America,” he said.

The Defense secretary did not shy away from the subject of China, when he delivered a prepared statement, instead of taking questions from journalists.

“The United States and Palau have stood side by side, in defense of our shared values and vision, and that is one namely of a free and open Indo-Pacific where all countries respect the rules and norms of peace and prosperity to all nations,” Esper said.

“This is especially important today as we continue working alongside our allies and partners to protect that internationals system that is under threat from China, in its ongoing destabilizing activities in the region.”

Palau's President Tommy Remengesau Jr. said while China was a key factor, he's promised that his country will remain a loyal friend to the United States, so long as it continues to provide financial assistance under the deal known as the Compact of Free Association.

Negotiations to renew the Compact have already begun, with the expectation that a deal could be finalized by the end of the year, although the existing agreement doesn't expire until 2023.

But the Compact has become all the more pressing because of the economic hit that tourist-dependent Palau has taken as a result of Covid-19.

“[There is a] need for U.S. to provide more direct assistance to Palau, so that we can survive this critical period," President Remengesau  said.

“China for example, it's no secret that they are loaning money and putting money into the economies of many Pacific island nations and that has an impact and how people view the relationship with those who help them,” he said.

“Our message today to the U.S. is you have a good friend in Palau, a steady and loyal friend, but then you also have a foundation to improve our relationship and this is the...dire financial situation for your friends in need, let's do more to address this special situation.”

A senior lecturer at the Center for Defense and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand, Dr. Anna Powles told Pacific Beat that the visit was significant, as was its timing.

“From the perspective of Secretary Esper's visit to Palau, it's a strong signal from Washington that they are taking these concerns very seriously, that they are seeking to garner support but also it speaks to the fact that earlier this year a report was released...it very much positioned Palau as a critical part of this  deterrence efforts with respect to China,” she said

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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