Palau President says he won't bow to China over Taiwan

Palau's President Surangel Whipps Jr (left) bumping elbows with Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu at Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei last month. The Pacific nation of around 21,000 people is one of 15 countries that still recognise Taiwan o
Palau's President Surangel Whipps Jr (left) bumping elbows with Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu at Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei last month. The Pacific nation of around 21,000 people is one of 15 countries that still recognise Taiwan over China.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HONG KONG • He leads one of the world's smallest nations, but Mr Surangel Whipps Jr says Palau will not be bullied by anyone into deciding its future - least of all by China.

Mr Whipps, 52, became Palau's President last year after defeating an opponent who favoured closer ties with Beijing.

The Pacific nation of around 21,000 people is one of 15 countries that still recognise Taiwan over China, something Mr Whipps is adamant will not change under his watch despite Beijing's pressure campaign.

"If we were the last man standing we should be because Taiwan has been with us from the beginning," he told Agence France-Presse this week after returning from a trip to Taipei, where the two allies set up a Covid-19 travel bubble for tourists.

China sees Taiwan as its breakaway province to be reunified, by force if necessary. Beijing has whittled down Taipei's remaining diplomatic allies using a mixture of carrots and sticks.

In 2019, it had two successes in the Pacific, persuading the Solomons and Kiribati to switch sides. Only Palau, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu remain.

Mr Whipps has emerged as the most vocally China-sceptical leader in the Pacific, something he says is forged from both Beijing's more aggressive stance under President Xi Jinping and his own interactions with Chinese officials.

"I've had meetings with them and the first thing they said to me before, on a phone call, was 'What you're doing is illegal, recognising Taiwan is illegal. You need to stop it'," he recalled.

"You know, that's the tone they use," he said. "We shouldn't be told we can't be friends with so and so."

Mr Whipps said he often received calls on his mobile from Chinese officials in the run-up to last year's elections. "It would ring for like 16 times... After the elections, I have not taken their calls."

Asked for comment yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing was "resolutely opposed" to Palau's diplomatic alliance with Taiwan.

Beijing has largely opted for the diplomatic stick when it comes to Palau recently.

Located around 900km east of the Philippines, Palau saw explosive growth in the number of Chinese tourists in the early half of the last decade. But in 2017, China suddenly banned package tours.

That decision, Mr Whipps believes, backfired because it heightened Palauan awareness of Chinese pressure.

"That's just an example of how it's kind of bait," he said, summarising the Chinese position as: "You do this for me, then we expect this and this."

That scepticism is music to Washington's ears as it tries to shore up alliances in the Pacific to counter Beijing's growing regional clout.

Palau was one of a group of Pacific islands administered by the United States in the aftermath of World War II. It became independent in 1994 but maintains close links with Washington.

Like other nearby Pacific nations, it has a 50-year defence agreement with the US known as the Compact of Free Association.

US forces are under Japanese pressure to draw down their massive bases in Okinawa and are looking to diversify across the Pacific.

Beijing's push to keep Taiwan isolated, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, has only heightened international sympathy for Taipei, Mr Whipps argued.

"They're a democracy and that should be respected," he said. "As diplomatic allies, you can't just throw that out the door."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2021, with the headline 'Palau President says he won't bow to China over Taiwan'. Subscribe