Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr chose Taiwan for his first foreign visit after taking office in January, and on Thursday the inaugural trip under the Taiwan-Palau “travel bubble” arrangement left for Palau. These demonstrate the close relations between the two countries, and that their citizens are at low risk of contracting COVID-19.
More importantly, the two nations occupy strategic positions in the first and second island chains, and their joint response to the challenges of the post-pandemic era shows that they expect to play an integral role in the Asia-Pacific region.
With a population of nearly 22,000, Palau is a small Pacific island nation, yet Beijing has a strong desire to lure it away from Taiwan and establish diplomatic ties with it: In 2017, Beijing used a travel ban to try to intimidate Palau into severing ties with Taiwan, but Palau was not swayed.
Palau’s main source of income is tourism and the greatest number of visitors used to travel from Japan, followed by Taiwan and South Korea. After several airlines started flying to Palau via Hong Kong and Macau in 2014, the number of Chinese tourists increased sharply, making China the biggest source of tourists.
Taiwan is familiar with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) methods, so it came as no surprise when Beijing tried to use this as a bargaining chip as part of its repertoire of coercive diplomatic practices.
Palau knows that its natural resources are limited and its environment fragile, and it stresses the sustainable development of its tourism industry. It was the first country to ban harmful sunscreens, and every visitor to Palau is required to sign the “Palau Oath” to protect the Palauans’ home.
While the number of Chinese tourists is substantial, the crowds and destruction that they bring, and the “one dragon” tourist agency model — in which Chinese companies bring Chinese tourists to Palau, where they ride on Chinese transport, stay at Chinese hotels, eat at Chinese restaurants and buy souvenirs at Chinese shops, meaning that most of their money never benefits Palauans — has left Palau to wonder whether Chinese tourism is worth it and caused the nation to shift its focus toward the development of high-quality tourism.
This should be as true of Taiwan as of Palau.
Beijing has accelerated its intimidation and expansion in the region over the past few years. Taiwan’s loss of two diplomatic allies in the South Pacific, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, in 2019 shows that China has ramped up efforts to increase its influence in more distant waters.
Palau, which has had a close relationship with the US since the end of World War II, in August last year invited the US to establish a military base there.
To the west, Palau faces the South China Sea, while the US’ main military base in the second island chain is on Guam. If the US were to establish a base in Palau, it could block Chinese expansionism in the South Pacific.
The US bases on Palau and Guam could assist each other, and their presence would also improve Taiwan’s security and defense.
The US, Japan and Taiwan all have embassies in Palau, which is a testament to its strategic value. Whipps’ delegation last week included US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland, an unprecedented arrangement, but one that demonstrates the tripartite alliance between Taiwan, Palau and the US.
On Tuesday last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Palauan Presidential Office and the American Institute in Taiwan issued a news release, to coincide with the launch of the tourism bubble between Taiwan and Palau, which emphasized that their partnership “is not limited to the areas of public health or epidemic prevention,” but also works to improve cooperation in areas such as promoting democracy and good governance, enhancing digital health, improving cooperation on maritime patrols and improving Palauan cybersecurity.
Cooperation between the three countries is to include critical security matters such as increasing coast guard cooperation as China uses its coast guard law to bolster its “gray zone” tactics.
Taiwan and the US are working together to improve coast guard capabilities. On March 25, they signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a coast guard working group to further systematize and formalize their cooperation.
Taiwan had previously signed coast guard cooperation agreements with Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands, among other South Pacific diplomatic allies, and this “coast guard model” is facilitating closer security cooperation between Taiwan, its Pacific allies and the US.
The coast guard has always been seen as a “second navy,” and by including it in the cooperation with Palau and other countries, Taiwan and the US are moving toward a quasi-military alliance. Not only would the US direct joint exercises, but Taiwan would participate.
Strategy experts have said that just as the US Coast Guard participates in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, which takes place every two years, Taiwan should also join the drills, based on the cooperation between the two nations.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has extended his predecessor’s policies, expanded US deployments in the Indo-Pacific region, and raised Taiwan’s regional role by supporting Taipei and opposing Beijing.
After Biden took office, China encroached on Taiwan’s air defense identification zone 20 times within a single day, a sign of the pressure that Washington is placing on China.
The Biden administration emphasizes unity among allies, and on March 19, the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the US joined in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to consolidate the cornerstones of security in the Indo-Pacific region.
Meanwhile, media reports said that the Biden administration would issue guidelines to further relax restrictions on official exchanges between the US and Taiwan, meaning that bilateral interaction is to continue to normalize.
Cooperation between Taiwanese and US diplomats is expected to become more frequent within the Indo-Pacific region, and not just in Taiwan or the US.
This benefits the consolidation of Taiwanese diplomacy, but also means that Taiwanese officials overseas must be productive. Making the alliance between Taiwan, Palau and the US into something official would show that the future can promise similar developments.
This is a great step for Taiwan, but the crucial question is: Are Taiwanese prepared to take it?
Translated by Perry Svensson
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