He leads one of many world’s smallest nations, however Surangel Whipps says Palau is not going to be bullied by anybody into deciding its future — least of all by China.
Whipps, 52, grew to become Palau’s president after final yr defeating an opponent who favoured nearer ties with Beijing.
The Pacific nation of round 21,000 individuals is certainly one of simply 15 international locations that also recognise Taiwan over China, one thing Whipps is adamant is not going to change beneath his watch regardless of Beijing’s strain marketing campaign.
“If we have been the final man standing we needs to be as a result of Taiwan has been with us from the start,” he informed AFP through video name this week after coming back from a visit to Taipei, the place the 2 allies arrange a coronavirus journey bubble for vacationers.
Authoritarian China claims democratic, self-ruled Taiwan as its personal territory and has vowed to sooner or later seize it, by pressure if wanted.
Beijing has whittled down Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies utilizing a combination of carrots and sticks.
In 2019, it had two successes within the Pacific, persuading the Solomons and Kiribati to modify sides.
Solely Palau, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu stay.
Whipps has emerged as probably the most vocally China-sceptical chief within the Pacific, one thing he says is cast from each Beijing’s extra aggressive stance beneath President Xi Jinping, and his personal interactions with Chinese language officers.
“I’ve had conferences with them and the very first thing they mentioned to me earlier than, on a cellphone name, was ‘What you are doing is illegitimate, recognising Taiwan is illegitimate. It is advisable to cease it’,” he recalled.
“You recognize, that is the tone they use,” he added. “We should not be informed we won’t be buddies with so and so.”
Whipps mentioned he would usually obtain calls on his cell from Chinese language officers within the run-up to final yr’s elections.
“It might ring for like 16 occasions,” he mentioned. “After the elections, I’ve not taken their calls.”
– China vacationer ban –
Beijing has largely opted for the diplomatic stick in the case of Palau not too long ago.
Situated round 900 kilometres (600 miles) east of the Philippines, Palau noticed explosive development within the variety of Chinese language vacationers within the early half of the final decade.
However in 2017, China abruptly banned package deal excursions, a standard transfer to use financial stress.
That call, Whipps believes, backfired as a result of it heightened Palauan consciousness of Chinese language strain.
“That is simply an instance of the way it’s form of bait,” he mentioned, summarising the Chinese language place as: “You do that for me, then we anticipate this and this.”
That scepticism is music to Washington’s ears because it tries to shore up alliances within the Pacific to counter Beijing’s rising regional clout.
Palau was certainly one of a gaggle of Pacific islands administered by the USA within the aftermath of World Conflict Two.
It grew to become unbiased in 1994 however maintains shut hyperlinks with Washington.
Like different close by Pacific nations, it has a 50-year defence settlement with the USA often called the Compact of Free Affiliation (COFA).
– US bases –
US forces are beneath Japanese strain to attract down their huge bases in Okinawa and want to diversify throughout the Pacific.
Final yr, then-defence secretary Mark Esper grew to become the primary Pentagon chief to go to Palau.
Whipps says he’s eager to see extra US navy bases, one thing he hopes will make his nation much less reliant on tourism.
“I believe there’s a possibility for everyone to achieve from this,” he mentioned.
A key battlefield throughout World Conflict Two, Palau types a part of the “second island chain” that US navy strategists see as key obstacles to China dominating the Pacific.
“The Japanese again then noticed the strategic significance, and I believe it nonetheless stays at present,” Whipps mentioned.
Whereas Whipps has spent most of his life in Palau, he was born in Baltimore, studied in the USA and speaks with an American-tinged accent.
He renounced US citizenship to turn out to be a Palau senator.
However he stays fervently pro-US, including Palau — which has recorded zero coronavirus circumstances — was on monitor to have all adults inoculated by Might because of vaccines equipped by Washington beneath COFA.
He additionally described Taiwan, which started diplomatic relations with Palau in 1999, as extra than simply an ally.
The island’s indigenous inhabitants are Austronesians and it was their forefathers who unfold out throughout the Pacific tens of hundreds of years in the past.
“There is a shared tradition and historical past,” Whipps mentioned.
Beijing’s push to maintain Taiwan remoted, particularly throughout the coronavirus pandemic, has solely heightened worldwide sympathy for Taipei, he argued.
“Taiwan is a free nation,” Whipps mentioned. “They are a democracy and that needs to be revered.”
“As diplomatic allies, you possibly can’t simply throw that out the door.”