Palau, United States expand maritime security arrangements after Chinese incursions

Stephen Wright
Palau, United States expand maritime security arrangements after Chinese incursions Palau President Surangel Whipps (left) and United States Navy Rear Adm. Michael Day are pictured signing a maritime law enforcement agreement in Koror, Palau , Aug. 23, 2023.
U.S. Embassy Koror.

The U.S. Coast Guard will have an expanded right to board vessels in Palau’s waters under a new maritime law enforcement agreement that comes after incursions by Chinese ships into the Pacific island country’s exclusive economic zone.

The arrangement between Palau and the U.S. Coast Guard adds to a similar pact signed with Palau’s neighbor, Federated States of Micronesia, last year and a shiprider agreement with Papua New Guinea, signed in May, as U.S.-China rivalry intensifies in the Pacific. The Palau agreement allows the Coast Guard to enforce regulations in the country’s waters without a Palauan officer present.

The agreement will help Palau monitor its exclusive economic zone, combat illegal fishing and “deter uninvited vessels from conducting questionable maneuvers within our waters," Palau’s President Surangel Whipps said in a statement released by the U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday.

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

In May, a Chinese research vessel, Haiyang Dizhi Liuhao, appeared to show interest in Palau’s undersea fiber optic cable during a days-long foray into the country’s exclusive economic zone, Palau’s government has said.

A U.S. Navy plane flies over waters that include a submerged reef known as Second Thomas Shoal in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone as China Coast Guard ships unsuccessfully try to block a Philippine resupply mission to a military outpost at the reef on Aug. 22, 2023. [Aaron Favila/AP]

Beijing’s influence in the Pacific has increased over the past two 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 China-U.S. competition for influence in the Pacific has added to the tensions between the two countries in East Asia and other regions.

The U.S. has recently sought to reinforce its close relationships with Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall islands in the militarily strategic northwestern Pacific as part of a broader effort to respond to China’s inroads in the region. It provides economic assistance to the three countries and has exclusive rights for military access to their territories under compacts of free association.

The Coast Guard statement didn’t specifically mention China. It said the expanded law enforcement agreement with Palau was signed last week at a conference in Koror, Palau of Pacific security officials. 

Capt. Nick Simmons, a Coast Guard commander for Micronesia and Guam, said the agreement “significantly strengthens our collective efforts to counter illicit maritime activities in the region and reflects our shared dedication to safeguarding the people of the Pacific.” 

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 exclusive 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 foreign vessels in the exclusive economic zone are often perceived as an economic or security threat.


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