US Defense Secretary Mark Esper became the first defense secretary to visit Palau, a Pacific archipelago 1500 kilometers southeast of the Philippines, on September 4, as part of Pacific bound tour to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific and meet with military leaders, local officials, foreign partners, and deployed personnel. Although Secretary Esper is the first US defense secretary to visit Palau, the US-Palau relationship dates back to World War II when Palau was a crucial battleground between US and Japanese forces in the Pacific.
After World War II, the US administered Palau under UN auspices until the country became independent in 1994. Since Palau gained independence in 1994 and established diplomatic ties with the US, Palau signed a Compact of Free Association with Washington, which grants the US military access to the islands and requires the US to provide Palau’s defense until 2044. The compact also brings in substantial financial aid to Palau as well as access to a wide range of federal programs many of which focus on addressing climate change and promoting sustainable development. In addition, the compact grants Palauans the right to travel to, work, and live in the US. Currently, the US does not maintain a regular military presence in the archipelago, however, an estimated 500 Palauans serve as volunteers in the US armed forces, according to US Department of State figures.
With the compact set to expire in 2024 and under renegotiation, President Remengesau encouraged Secretary Esper to build more US military facilities, including land bases, port facilities, and airfields, in Palau. A US Coast Guard presence was also requested to help patrol its 193,000 square mile marine reserve aimed at protecting marine animals from overfishing and oil drilling.
Along with increasing US military preparedness, the expansion of US presence will also help the Palauan economy. COVID-19 has crippled the local economy by halting the country’s main industry, tourism, which accounts for 40% of the national GDP. However, similar to the upcoming US election cycle, Palau will also have elections shortly after the US elections on November 3, which may impact the outcome of the renegotiated compact.
Hanna Foreman is a Research Intern in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a recent graduate of the James Madison College at Michigan State University with a major in International Relations and a minor in Korean.