Trans-Pacific View

US Given OK to Enforce Maritime Law Around Palau as Washington Vies With China for Pacific Influence

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Security | Oceania

US Given OK to Enforce Maritime Law Around Palau as Washington Vies With China for Pacific Influence

U.S. Coast Guard ships can now enforce regulations inside Palau’s exclusive economic zone on behalf of the nation without a Palauan officer present.

US Given OK to Enforce Maritime Law Around Palau as Washington Vies With China for Pacific Influence

Coast Guard Cutter Washington departs Malakal Harbor in Palau for a search and rescue exercise between the U.S. Coast Guard and Republic of Palau May 18, 2014.

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt.j.g. Grant Rutter

The United States has signed a new agreement with Palau, which gives American ships the authorization to unilaterally enforce maritime regulations in the tiny Pacific island nation’s exclusive economic zone, the U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday.

The agreement comes as both the U.S. and China are seeking to expand their influence in the Pacific, and follows pleas from Palau’s president for Washington’s help to deter Beijing’s “unwanted activities” in its coastal waters.

In the agreement, concluded a week ago, U.S. Coast Guard ships can enforce regulations inside Palau’s exclusive economic zone on behalf of the nation without a Palauan officer present, the Coast Guard said in a statement.

“This agreement helps Palau monitor our exclusive economic zone, protect against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and deter uninvited vessels from conducting questionable maneuvers within our waters,” Palau’s president, Surangel S. Whipps Jr., was quoted as saying in the release.

“It’s these types of partnerships that help us work toward our common goal of peace and prosperity in the region.”

The statement made no mention of China, but in June, Whipps told reporters in Tokyo that three Chinese boats had made “uninvited” entries into his country’s waters since he took office in 2021. The Palaun president stressed at the time the need for further U.S. backing to enhance deterrence against China’s assertive moves in the region.

“The United States is responsible for our security and we would also inform them that we need them to engage and help us in deterring any unwanted activities,” Whipps said.

Under the Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreement that Palau — along with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) — has with the United States. Under COFA, the United States has exclusive rights to deploy military assets within Palau’s land and territorial waters in exchange for financial assistance and other benefits conveyed to Palau’s citizens, such as the right to work in the United States.

The funding agreements with the FSM, the RMI, and Palau were all set to expire in 2023 and 2024, sparking a lengthy renegotiation process. In May, the United States signed renewal agreements with Palau and the FSM; negotiations with the RMI have run aground on questions of U.S. compensation for past nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. U.S. Congress will need to approve the budget lines for the new agreements to keep COFA running smoothly. 

Tensions have been growing in the Asia-Pacific region as China presses its widespread maritime claims and the United States and its allies push back.

At about the same time the U.S. Coast Guard agreement with Palau was signed last week, two Philippine boats, with a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft overhead, breached a Chinese coast guard blockade in the disputed South China Sea to deliver supplies to Filipino forces guarding a contested shoal.

It was the latest flare-up in long-standing territorial disputes in the busy sea that involve China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei.

In June, Whipps accused China of conducting surveying activities in Palau waters, and suggested his country was being punished by Beijing over its stance on Taiwan.

Palau is one of the few countries that recognizes Taiwan and maintains diplomatic relations with the island, which split from mainland China during a civil war in 1949 and set up a rival government to the victorious Communists in Beijing.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, the government of Solomon Islands and Kiribati both opted to switch their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. Since then, the Solomons signed a secretive security pact with China that has given rise to concerns it could give Beijing a military foothold in the South Pacific.

The United States has countered with diplomatic moves of its own, including opening an embassy in Solomon Islands.

The agreement with Palau is similar to one concluded with the Federated States of Micronesia at the end of 2022, following which the U.S. Coast Guard has conducted boardings for the Pacific nation.

The U.S. also signed a bilateral defense agreement in May with Papua New Guinea, which will allow the U.S. Coast Guard to conduct boardings alongside its local counterparts in Papua New Guinea’s exclusive economic zone for the first time later this year.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the agreements show “the United States’ ongoing investment in protecting shared resources and an interest in maritime safety and security.”

“This unity of effort with Pacific island countries, including the collaboration with Palau, amplifies our collective ability to protect resources and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific for all nations who observe the rule of law,” the Coast Guard said.