No nation is too small or too distant from Washington, it seems, to be excluded from the White House’s campaign to counter China’s efforts to supplant the US as the dominant Pacific power.
Evidence of this is US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s decision to fly nearly halfway around the world partly so he can spend several hours in Palau, a Pacific archipelago of barely 20,000 people southeast of the Philippines.
There is no suggestion of a direct Chinese military threat to Palau. Instead the island nation is an example of the sometimes obscure battleground on which the US and China are pursuing a “great power” competition for global influence in an era of a more inward-looking Washington and an increasingly assertive and ambitious China.
The power struggle is intensifying on multiple fronts and is seen by some as an emerging “cold war,” akin to the mostly non-shooting conflict that played out between the US and the former Soviet Union until the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991.
In defiance of Beijing, tiny pro-US Palau is one of only 15 states with official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
“We are concerned about China continuing to try to flip countries that recognize Taiwan today to establish diplomatic relations with China instead,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Heino Klinck said. “We find that destabilizing, quite frankly.”
The US made that very switch itself when it recognized Beijing as the sole legal government of China in 1979, although Washington maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan and sells arms to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act.
More broadly, Klinck said in an interview, Esper wants to reinforce the US commitment to a long-term relationship with Palau.
“A little country, maybe, but they punch above their weight when it comes to enlistment rates in the US military,” Klinck said, adding that six Palauans have been killed in a US uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under a 1994 Compact of Free Association, Palauans are eligible to serve in the US military.
The list of complaints from US President Donald Trumps’ administration about China is long and extends far beyond Palau.
Washington derides China’s militarization of the South China Sea, regards with suspicion its expanding nuclear arsenal, and has retaliated this year for its alleged use of diplomatic facilities in the US to coordinate theft of economic and scientific secrets.
The COVID-19 pandemic and commercial trade, too, are sore spots.
For its part, China sees US policy as designed to limit its rise as an economic and military power.
US and Chinese warships often jockey for position in the South China Sea.
Last month, the Trump administration took the diplomatic tussle to a new level by declaring illegitimate nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, a broad declaration that favors Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.
Esper was flying to Palau this week after a stop in Hawaii, for his first visit to the Asia-Pacific region since the pandemic forced him to limit international travel in March.
Esper’s visit illustrates an important reason for the Pentagon’s interest in nurturing ties: Palau sits on a North Pacific pathway that links US forces based in Hawaii and Guam to potential hotspots on the Asian continent.
Esper also is to visit Guam.
No US defense secretary has ever visited Palau, according to the Pentagon historian’s office.
In a study last year, US think tank RAND Corp said the Freely Associated States, of which Palau is a part along with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, are “crucial to the promotion” of the administration’s Asia-Pacific strategy.
Their position in the Pacific is “tantamount to a power-projection superhighway running through the heart of the North Pacific into Asia,” it said.
The US military has a legacy, but no troops, in Palau. Marines suffered heavy casualties in attacking Japanese positions on southern Palau island of Peleliu in September 1944.
The US administered Palau under UN auspices after World War II and is responsible for its defense until 2044 under the Compact of Free Association.
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