WASHINGTON -- Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr. met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the Pentagon to discuss ways to strengthen the ties between the two nations to provide for a secure and free Indo-Pacific.
The Republic of Palau is 340-plus islands strategically placed in the Western Pacific bordering the Philippines. The nation became independent in 1981 and entered a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1994.
Palau is heavily dependent on tourism and has some of the best scuba diving spots in the world. While the nation has felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — tourism has been curtailed — it has been very successful in combating the virus itself. "Today, you have, as I understand it, zero confirmed cases," Austin said at the beginning of the meeting with the president. "And Palau is the first country that vaccinated 80 percent of the population," said Austin, adding that the statistic is impressive.
Austin began the meeting by thanking President Whipps for the service of his father in the U.S. Army during the 1960s. As part of the compact, Palauns serve in the U.S. military. Austin noted that 500 of the president's countrymen serve today.
"I want to underscore that the Department of Defense is deeply committed to our defense responsibilities as a part of the Compact of Free Association, and we look forward to successful negotiations of the economic assistance provisions of that compact that will strengthen our strategic partnership and help us to promote a free, open and secure region," Austin said.
Palau hosts U.S. forces, and, as the Indo-Pacific becomes ever more important to the United States, the nation will play a greater role. "We appreciate the opportunity to also deploy equipment to Palau that lets us exercise our joint capability and enhanced deterrence," the secretary said. "The U.S. military presence in Palau and across the Pacific Islands is deeply important to our shared goals of partnership and prosperity, and we are grateful for your cooperation and hospitality."
Whipps told Austin that the partnership between Palau and the United States is special. He said during a recent meeting on Guam, the DOD personnel said they were committed to defending the homeland, and Palau is part of the homeland, he said.
"I always say that presence is deterrence," Whipps said. "I was fortunate a few weeks ago to be watching U.S. special forces conduct exercises in Palau. It was extremely exciting to see what they're capable of doing. We want to continue to strengthen the partnership because we believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific."