US soldiers during an exercise in Palau in 2019. Image: Facebook

US President Donald Trump has made a hash of relationships with America’s allies and partners. Or so say the parts of the US foreign policy community for whom Trump is Lucifer in human form.

But Tommy Remengesau, president of the Western Pacific island nation of Palau, appears not to have gotten the word. When US Defense Secretary Mike Esper visited in August this year, Remengesau asked Esper to set up bases in Palau and to use them.

And he reportedly put the offer in writing in a hand-delivered letter: “Palau’s request to the US military remains simple – build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly.”

The president’s letter laid out a few mutually beneficial possibilities: “Some of Palau’s chief infrastructure needs, including port facilities, secondary airfields, law enforcement training grounds and maritime enforcement and surveillance facilities, are also opportunities to strengthen US military readiness.”

President Remengesau reportedly reiterated the offer when US Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite visited Palau in mid-October.

Palau is small, with only 20,000 citizens in the island group. But it has what real estate agents value most: location, location, location – about 950 miles east of the Philippines and, with a little work, excellent ports and airfields.

Palau maintains a so-called Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the US. In exchange for providing financial and economic aid and the right of Palau citizens to live and work in America, the US covers Palau’s security and gets military access and a veto on foreign militaries operating in its territory.

But Remengesau noted correctly in his letter that “The US military’s right to establish defense sites in the Republic of Palau has been under-utilized for the entire duration of the compact.”

Map: Pinterest

The same can be said about the Pentagon’s approach to the entire Central Pacific and the other two COFA states: Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The US has responded favorably to Remengesau’s offer but a Pentagon spokesman’s recent comment raises a few worries.  He remarked that the Department of Defense’s “focus is on access to places from which to operate, not necessarily new permanent bases.”

This brings to mind the “Places not Bases” fad of the late 1990s. The idea was that the US didn’t need actual bases anymore since the Cold War was over, America faced no real enemies and there was a “peace dividend” to be collected. However, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said it right: “Virtual presence is actual absence.”

If you’re not there all the time, you’re not serious. Small is fine, but it must be permanent. 

The Pentagon does not seem to understand that a military base need not have a Pizza Hut restaurant and a nine-hole golf course. Indeed, in Palau’s case, a hundred of the right Americans – the sort who joined the military for adventure on the edge of empire – can accomplish all sorts of things.

The “right” people aren’t only the US military. The US Coast Guard might also put a ship in Palau to help the country protect its maritime resources. And the FBI can help with transnational organized crime and corruption.

With a little imagination, the Japanese Self Defense Forces and Coast Guard might also make use of the joint US-Palau bases. And since Palau recognizes Taiwan, perhaps the Taiwan military might make an appearance.

President Remengesau has stuck his neck out with this offer. And not for the first time.

In 2015, the People’s Republic of China allowed tour groups to visit Palau and soon Chinese tourists represented over half the tourists visiting Palau. Some people (such as landowners who signed long-term leases with PRC entities) and politicians got hooked on Chinese cash – though little of the tourist money actually stayed in Palau.

This UN handout photo shows Tommy Esang Remengesau Jr., President of Palau, as he virtually addresses the general debate of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 23 in New York. Photo: AFP / Eskinder Debebe / United Nations

Not surprisingly, in 2017, Beijing turned off the tourist tap to pressure Palau over its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

Remengesau didn’t back down, however, and said he would just seek fewer – but higher-spending – tourists from Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere. He had some success but the economy is suffering these days as Covid-19 has shut down tourism.

And as Chinese investment does everywhere, it splits a society by creating a constituency that sees its prospects – and bank accounts – best aligned with the PRC.  Some Palauan politicians have said as much.

Washington appears to recognize that it is important to show Palau benefits from Remengesau’s initiative – and not just in the form of the US military showing up and spending money. Rather, there is also an economic prong to the strategy.

Probably not by coincidence, on October 29, 2020, the US State Department announced it is funding along with Japan and Australia a new undersea fiber optic cable to Palau to improve digital connectivity. There’s more to be done, of course, and Taiwanese firms have a role to play as well.

President Remengesau’s offer didn’t just show up out of the blue.   

The Trump administration has paid more attention to the Central Pacific nations and US territories than all its predecessors. The National Security Council made Oceania a priority and in May 2019, for the first time ever, all COFA leaders visited the White House. 

A few months later, in another first, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Federated States of Micronesia and met with the leaders of each of the COFA states. The recent visits to the region by the US defense and naval secretaries spoke volumes – as did the administration’s prioritizing COFA renewal and the financial aid that comes with it.

Could previous administrations have done this? Yes. Did they?  No. The expression “benign neglect” is said to have been coined to describe the US government’s performance in the Central Pacific post-1945.

President Remengesau’s offer is also good timing for the US military.

The US Marines’ and other services’ new operating concepts call for dispersing forces throughout the Indo-Pacific region. One small problem: the welcome mat hadn’t been out anywhere. 

This wasn’t a priority for the US military until recently, and earlier opportunities were squandered. 

Aerial view of the uninhabited Rock Islands of Palau. Photo: AFP

A decade ago, a Southeast Asian nation that had had a tumultuous existence after obtaining independence asked the Americans to set up military training areas and to use them “all the time” – and to invite friends, too. Junior officers in the Marine Corps put together an economical, effective scheme in short order. Bureaucrats (in uniform and out) at Pacific Command in Honolulu smothered it.

But that was then.

Take advantage of President Remengesau’s offer and show that the US and its partners offer a better alternative to whatever the PRC is pushing, and similar invitations from other regional nations might appear.

Note: This writer has often been critical of the performance of the US State Department and US military in improving America’s presence in the Indo-Pacific.  But somebody on the US side has done excellent work with Palau.

If this writer had to guess who, the answer would be the US Ambassador to Palau, desk officers at PACOM and a few people on the US National Security Council. They’ve shown what can be done.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.

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