The Palauan president-elect has vowed to stand up to Chinese “bullying” in the Pacific, saying that the archipelago nation is set to stand by its alliances with “true friends,” Taiwan and the US.
Surangel Whipps Jr, 52, a supermarket owner and two-time senator from a prominent Palauan family, is to be sworn in as the new president tomorrow, succeeding his brother-in-law, Tommy Remengesau Jr.
In a forthright interview, Whipps said that the US had demonstrated over the years that it was a reliable friend of Palau, most recently shown by its delivery of 6,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s important for countries to have shared values support each and work together,” Whipps said. “There is a competition, yes [between the US and China], but that’s their competition. It’s about what we believe.”
“There are thoughts that the ‘United States and China are in a race’; I think what it is really about is freedom and the exercise of democracy and many times, we feel big countries want to bully small countries,” he said. “It’s important to have a strong partner that is there for us.”
The US Coast Guard and the Palauan Maritime Administration last month seized a Chinese fishing vessel suspected of illegally harvesting sea cucumbers inside Palau’s territorial waters.
“This is about securing our borders and other countries that don’t respect other countries’ borders are not acceptable,” Whipps said.
“Stealing and offering bribes, that’s just got to stop — illegal fishing has to stop. As countries, we should also be responsible to our people, and tell them not to go to other countries and do these kinds of things,” he said.
Countries that want to be regarded as global leaders should take responsibility for the actions of their citizens, Whipps said, adding that outgoing Palauan Vice President Raynold B. Oilouch, also the minister of justice, tried to contact the Chinese government about the vessel’s unlawful entry.
“But they don’t seem to care,” Whipps said. “They should take responsibility for their people and it is like they encouraged them by ignoring them. It’s not good.”
Whipps also pledged that Palau would continue formal recognition of, and its close relations with, Taiwan, despite the growing presence of China in the Pacific.
“Palau’s position, as a friend of Taiwan, has caused a lot of collateral damage for Palau,” Whipps said. “Other countries that do not like this relationship do things in the international community, like the UN and other Pacific organizations, to try to disrupt what Palau is promoting.”
“I think that’s the nature of larger nations who want to bully,” Whipps added.
As a pointed show of support, Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) is to attend Whipps’ presidential inauguration and the two administrations have been in discussions over a travel bubble, given low COVID-19 case numbers in Taiwan and Palau, being COVID-19-free.
However, Palau’s allegiance to Taiwan has not been without consequence: The nation is subject to an unofficial travel ban for Chinese tourists, which has hurt the country’s tourism-dependent economy.
Whipps was portrayed as a generational change during the spirited, but comparatively good-natured campaign held over two rounds in October and November last year.
Whipps said that restarting the tourism-dependent economy is a priority, and that he hopes to vaccinate most of the population of 18,000 people by summer.
However, he said that climate change is the greatest challenge.
Most of the population lives close to the water and the country’s only hospital is near the coast, where it is at risk of being wiped out by a typhoon or storm surge.
“We see [climate change] on a daily basis — other people don’t,” Whipps said. “We need to make people understand, especially the larger countries, that the threat is real and we should work together to find a solution.”
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