Palau says Chinese vessel slowed over undersea cable during incursion into waters

L.N. Reklai
Koror, Palau
Palau says Chinese vessel slowed over undersea cable during incursion into waters Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr. says his government will send a diplomatic note to China’s embassy to the Federated States of Micronesia over the incident.
Sakchai Lalit/AP

A Chinese research vessel appeared to show interest in Palau’s undersea fiber optic cable during a days-long foray into the Pacific island country’s waters, a government official said.

Palau, one of a handful of Pacific nations to recognize Taiwan rather than Beijing and an ally of the United States, has reported four unwanted incursions into its remote waters by Chinese research vessels since 2018. 

“Clearly they [China] do not respect the rules-based order,” Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr. said on Tuesday. Whipps said his government will send a diplomatic note to China’s embassy to the Federated States of Micronesia.

The research vessel, Haiyang Dizhi Liuhao, entered Palau’s exclusive economic zone without providing any notification on the afternoon of May 24, according to Palau’s National Security Coordinator Jennifer Anson. 

“It slowed to about 1-2 knots as it passed over Palau’s fiber optic cable. It continued with questionable maneuvers, passing about 45 nautical miles from Kayangel [Palau's northernmost atoll]. Attempts by the Joint Operation Center to contact the vessel via VHF radio were unsuccessful,” Anson said.

Palau’s dozens of islands, between the Philippines and Guam, have a combined land area of about 189 square miles – 2.5 times the size of Washington D.C. – and an exclusive economic zone spanning some 238,000 square miles of ocean. 

Under international law, nations have rights to economic exploitation of a 200 nautical mile zone around their land borders. The seas beyond a 12 nautical mile territorial zone are international waters so foreign vessels can pass through them. However unnotified research vessel activity in the exclusive economic zone could be perceived as an economic or security threat.

Due to bad weather, Palau’s maritime security force couldn’t deploy its patrol boat or aircraft to intercept the Chinese vessel, according to the government. On Monday, the China-flagged ship appeared to be heading toward Micronesia.

China’s embassy in Micronesia did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. 

Island nations in the vast Pacific Ocean have become the focus of increased rivalry between China and the U.S.

Beijing’s influence in the region has increased over several decades through a combination of trade, infrastructure and aid as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, gain allies in international institutions and advance its economic and security interests.

The U.S. has recently sought to reinforce its close relationships with Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall islands in the militarily strategic northwestern Pacific. It provides economic assistance to the three countries and has rights to military control of their territories under compacts of free association. 

Palau, home to about 20,000 people, earlier this month signed an agreement for increased economic assistance from Washington. The U.S. military also plans to install over-the-horizon radar in Palau by 2026, adding to its early-warning capabilities for the western Pacific as China’s military strength increases.

The previous incursion by a Chinese vessel into Palau’s waters was in July 2022 when the Yuan Wang 5 passed within 90 nautical waters of Palau’s southwestern islands. 

Yuan Wang 5, which bristles with surveillance technology, has been described by China’s state media as mainly undertaking “maritime tracking, monitoring and communication tasks concerning rockets, satellites, spaceships and China's space station.”

Another research vessel, Da Yang Hao, stayed in Palau’s exclusive economic zone for seven days in December 2021. 

“Conducting research without authorization and carrying out questionable activities within Palau’s waters threatens security and disregards sovereignty and rules-based order,” Anson said.


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