Palau Questions China’s ‘True Intent’ in Pushing New Security Deals in Pacific

'We already have security in our region'
By Aldgra Fredly
Aldgra Fredly
Aldgra Fredly
Aldgra Fredly is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, covering Asia Pacific news for The Epoch Times.
May 31, 2022 Updated: May 31, 2022

Pacific island nations have made the right decision by withdrawing from China’s proposed regional economic and security deal, Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr. said on Monday, pushing back on Beijing’s plans in the region.

“I think it’s always been about what is the true intent in stepping up, especially when it came to security. Why is there such an interest in security? I mean economic development, that’s important, but what is the reason for security?” Whipps said in an interview with Australia’s ABC Radio National the day after Beijing failed to get 10 Pacific nations to sign on to its China-Pacific Islands Free Trade Area.

“We already have security in our region. But bringing more actors and more players in just creates possible conflict, which then I think brings a security risk, and I think that’s the concern that we all have because we lived through WWII and we didn’t want that to be the case again,” he added.

A lack of enthusiasm from Pacific nations has forced Beijing to shelve its sweeping security and economic deal with 10 nations in the region, following a meeting between foreign ministers on May 30.

Beijing’s China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision, which was leaked to the press last week, proposed China-led cooperation across the 10 Pacific nations in free trade, fisheries, security, cyber, and maritime mapping, and would have been a significant step forward for the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions in the region.

Whipps stated that Pacific island nations feared the security deal with China could further pave the way to a new cold war, considering the situation facing the islands as the battleground during World War II.

“I don’t think any of us wanna be involved or be put in a situation like that again. We are small countries, and we want to live in a free and open Indo-Pacific where there’s a respect for the rule of law,” he remarked. Palau is a democratic republic which has stronger ties with Taiwan than the Chinese communist regime in the mainland.

Citing climate change as the region’s greatest challenge, Whipps noted that Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama made a significant move in “standing up” and calling on China to make a stronger commitment to climate action.

“If [China] wants to help us, the biggest security threat right now for the Pacific islands is climate change,” he added.

Palau President Surangel Whipps
Palau President Surangel Whipps arrives for the U.N. Climate Change Conference COP26 at SECC in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, 2021. (Phil Noble – Pool/Getty Images)

“Sea level rise is an invasion and it’ll create climate refugees, destroy cultures that have existed for thousands of years, and people’s identity. It’s so important [to] hold large countries accountable to their action,” Whipps said, adding that Australia has stepped up its commitments on climate change.

Speaking of his nation’s ties with Taiwan, Whipps said that Palau will continue to support the self-ruled island and recognize its sovereignty, maintaining Palau’s stance of being “friend to all and enemy to none.”

“China has told us, ‘You need to just sever relations with Taiwan and only have a one-China policy.’ But our policy has always been that we welcome everyone and no one should tell us who our friend should be,” he noted.

Palau’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan resulted in a plummet in Chinese tourists to the nation, who accounted for 70 percent of the tourism sector in 2015. Whipps said that China used a “carrot and the stick approach” to force the island nation into severing its ties with Taiwan.

He noted that some Pacific island nations had switched allegiance from Taiwan to China as a result of the loss our tourists and the promises offered by the communists in Beijing, given their wish to enhance the lives of their people.

“When you’re presented with those challenges, what China offers becomes very attractive because, as they told me, ‘The sky is the limit’,” he added.

Aside from Palau, only three other Pacific island nations—the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Tuvalu—still recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. In November 2019, Tuvalu rejected offers from China to build artificial islands to help it cope with rising sea levels.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) shakes hands with Fiji’s Foreign Affairs Minister Inia Seruiratu before their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on June 11, 2019. (Photo by WANG ZHAO / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images)

While the major regional deal didn’t go ahead, the Chinese foreign minister still managed to gain further commitments from the governments of the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, and Fiji to tighten cooperation.

The Solomon Islands signed a security deal with Beijing last month, which other nations feared would allow China to establish a military base 1,700 kilometers off the Australian coast and destabilize the Indo-Pacific region.

Australian and U.S. leaders have taken steps to counteract Beijing’s push into the region, including launching the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity to bolster trade and economic exchange between nations.

Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, also visited Fiji just days after the Labor Party won the Australian federal election. Wong pledged a “new era” in engagement with the region on climate change and also more aid for climate initiatives.

Daniel Y. Teng contributed to this report.

Aldgra Fredly is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, covering Asia Pacific news for The Epoch Times.