In early August, the President of the Republic of Palau (Palau), Surangel Whipps Jr., met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington DC to discuss shared interests in Indo-Pacific security. This is the latest in a string of high-level engagements with the leaders of Pacific Island countries as the United States seeks to increase its military, economic, and political presence in the region.
Palau, a country of just over 21,000 citizens, is located in the southwest corner of Micronesia, 830 miles south of Guam. The island nation became independent in 1981 and entered into the Compact of Free Association (“COFA”) with the United States in 1994. The COFA agreement provides Palau with economic assistance, national defense, and visa-free migration to the United for its citizens. In return, Palau hosts American forces and sends its citizens to serve in the U.S. military. The agreement is up for renegotiation in 2024.
Palau is the most prosperous of the Pacific Island states and has the capacity to meaningfully participate in regional architectures and initiatives targeting enhanced Indo-Pacific security. It is a steadfast partner of the United States and a vocal advocate for democracy and climate change resilience. Secretary of State Blinken and President Whipps Jr. discussed shared interests for Palau, including sustainable development, climate change action, economic prosperity, and COVID-19 responses.
In his meeting with President Whipps, Secretary Austin stressed that the Department of Defense is “deeply committed to our defense responsibilities as part of the Compact of Free Association”, and that the United States “look[s] forward to successful negotiations...of the compact that will strengthen our strategic partnership and help us promote a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific.”
Palau is a crucial partner in the implementation of the United States’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific (“FOIP”) strategy. FOIP is a four-pronged, whole-of-government strategy that champions: “(1) respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations; (2) peaceful resolution of disputes; (3) free, fair, and reciprocal trade based on open investment, transparent agreements, and connectivity; and (4) adherence to international law”. It was developed to counter growing regional competition between democratic and revisionist agendas for the future world order. The success of the strategy hinges on the cooperative efforts between the United States and its regional allies. Palau’s location in the far Western Pacific Ocean allows the United States to project strategic power far beyond its centers of command.
The meetings between President Whipps Jr. and Secretaries Austin III and Blinken demonstrate the growing attention paid to Pacific Island countries by the U.S. government. Palau is an important regional partner, not just on matters of defense, but also on development, climate change, and COVID-19. Successful renegotiation of the COFA agreement is one step closer to realizing the goals of FOIP and for productive, prosperous relationships with our Pacific neighbors.
Lily Schlieman is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master's Student at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa in Pacific Island Studies.