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Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. on balancing environmental leadership and increased military presence: Part I

Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. in a dark, navy blue floral button up standing in front of KPRG's poster in-studio.
Naina Rao
Isla Public Media (KPRG 89.3 FM)
Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. in-studio at KPRG 89.3 FM.

Palau, an idyllic archipelago renowned for its pristine coral reefs and commitment to environmental preservation, has embarked on a historic venture with Guam's National Guard. The recently inked agreement, announced on Monday, marks Palau's entry into the National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program, solidifying ties in law enforcement, infrastructure, and cybersecurity.

In a conversation with Palau's President, Surangel Whipps Jr., the significance of this partnership resonated. President Whipps emphasized the pivotal role of cooperation in strengthening existing relationships, particularly with Guam, a neighboring U.S. territory.

Palau, comprising over 300 islands and home to approximately 18,000 inhabitants, has long been at the forefront of marine conservation efforts. Its commitment to environmental sustainability is underscored by initiatives such as the imposition of a $100 green fee for tourists and the establishment of the world's first national shark sanctuary in 2009.

However, the delicate balance between promoting tourism and preserving the environment has been a recurring challenge. President Whipps outlined a strategy that prioritizes high-value tourism over mass influxes, ensuring sustainable economic growth while safeguarding Palau's natural heritage.

The development of luxury accommodations, including a forthcoming Four Seasons resort and 40 villas, reflects Palau's shift towards attracting discerning travelers who appreciate the country's pristine beauty.

Yet, Palau's growing partnership with the United States has raised concerns among some residents. The presence of U.S. military assets, including nuclear-powered vessels, has sparked debates over environmental risks and sovereignty.

President Whipps addressed these concerns, highlighting Palau's constitutional amendments to accommodate military transit and the ongoing construction of military facilities such as the Tactical Mobile Over-the-Horizon Radar (TACMOR). TACMOR, touted for its advanced surveillance capabilities, underscores Palau's strategic significance in the Indo-Pacific region.

While acknowledging apprehensions surrounding militarization, President Whipps emphasized the importance of security and deterrence in maintaining regional stability. He cited recent incursions by Chinese vessels into Palau's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as evidence of the need for enhanced security measures.

However, the partnership with the United States also intersects with Palau's commitments to nuclear disarmament. Despite ratifying a UN treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons in 2018, Palau's stance on nuclear energy remains nuanced. President Whipps advocated for a holistic approach to energy security, recognizing the potential of nuclear power in reducing carbon emissions.

As Palau navigates the complexities of geopolitical alliances and environmental sustainability, President Whipps reiterated the country's commitment to fostering peace and preserving its natural heritage. The partnership with Guam signals a new chapter in Palau's international relations, marked by cooperation and strategic foresight. Yet, it also underscores the delicate balance between progress and preservation in one of the world's most biodiverse regions.


HOST INTRO/JEFFERSON CRONIN: The National Guard Bureau State Partnership program is a cooperative relationship between a state or a territory’s National Guard, with a partner nation. It’s established under the U-S Department of Defense. And on Monday, Palau made history by signing an agreement with Guam’s National Guard to become one of those partner nations. This means they’ll work together to enhance cooperation in areas such as law enforcement, infrastructure, and cybersecurity. Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. emphasized how crucial this partnership was, as it strengthens their existing relationship with Guam. In a special, two-part, series, K-P-R-G’s Naina Rao sat down with the President, to discuss what implications of an increased U-S military presence could bring, and where Palau stands in the world stage.

NAINA RAO: To the east of the Philippines is the pristine, far-flung tropical archipelago of Palau. Over 300 islands make up the country, and around 18,000 people make up the population. The nation’s vibrant coral reefs have long attracted the world’s most avid divers. With its total area of a hundred and eighty square miles, Palau is one of the smallest countries in the world. But it’s largely a leader in environmental preservation and marine conservation. Upon entering Palau, tourists must pay a hundred-dollar green fee. It made history this January as the first nation to approve a U-N treaty protecting the oceans around the world. In 2009, the country banned shark fishing. This led to the world’s first national shark sanctuary, providing a haven for the creatures to feed, rest and reproduce. Even the award-winning publication, Popular Science, found Palau’s coral reefs keeping pace with a warming ocean. At one point though, all of that was put at risk. In 2015, a huge wave of tourists from mainland China caused environmental degradation and damage. Then-president Tommy Remengesau said Palau’s small size, population and a very fragile environment do not go well with mass tourism. When I sat down with Palau’s current president, Surangel Whipps Jr., he explained how a luxury tourism model is answering to this challenge.

SURANGEL WHIPPS JR.: Well, I think one of the things that, people come to Palau, and tour companies or tour operators, they like to say everything here so expensive. Right? I like to say, that's what the price of paradise is. We need to think differently in Palau. We keep on undervaluing ourselves. Palau is a Rolex, but we sell it as a Timex. We need to be getting the value of a Rolex because that's what we have. And by doing that, there's nothing wrong with charging environmental fees. Because that's how we protect paradise. That's how we help our people. There's nothing wrong with having a 10% value added tax, because we want to get more from our visitors to contribute to nation building. Right? High value means, come and enjoy Palau but also contribute to the economic development, and not exploit it. So, automatically, when you have higher costs for things, I think it forces investors to also look at higher end investments. One of the things that, at least has started, it's already operational, is the Four Seasons, has a boat cruising in Palau. It's basically a floating hotel. 11 rooms. 10 rooms that go for $3,000 a night, and one that goes for $6,000 a night. That's high end.

RAO: They’re also planning to build 40 villas in the country. President Whipps added that the Four Seasons have secured the property and the permits to start construction.

RAO: How are you planning to build up tourism as it co-exists with conservation?

WHIPPS: The idea is, less people, get more from each visitor. So that you don't have to have this mass tourism model that brings in too many people that you get overrun, which is what we had in 2015. But you need tourists. But let's make sure that they're contributing to the nation and not just exploiting from them. And that means people should be earning decent wages. So, you know, this argument that ‘Oh, wages -- can't raise wages because it's going to be too expensive.’ I said, well, when they come to Guam or they go to Hawaii, it's $15 an hour. They can pay more. So, we still advocate that we need to raise wages. We are fortunate that there's another, finally another good hotel that's coming up, it's an Indigo which is part of the Intercontinental group. A boutique hotel. It’s being done by the Donki group in  Palau, already started construction, they were hoping to be done by the end of this year, but maybe next year. Another 200 rooms, but higher value rooms and that's what we want to see more of and slowly transform Palau to be that destination that visitors come and appreciate and it's truly the pristine paradise that we advertise it to be. I’ve used the example that there's Oahu. So, in this, our area of the world, that would be Guam. And then we, maybe, are more like Kauai. You know, we're blessed with a beautiful environment, and we need to take care of it, and as good stewards, but that's also our obligation to share with the world.

RAO: Palau is quite the leader is marine biodiversity. How are you balancing that priority with increased U.S. troop presence because U.S. military brings in nuclear-powered vessels. And they bring in ships and aircraft that have the capability to carry these nuclear weapons. How are you balancing that?

WHIPPS: I think this is an argument that back in the 80s, the people's fear of nuclear, and nuclear arms, in our Constitution, were banned from coming into Palau. So, we had to amend our constitution to allow for the transit or if we knew about them or not, right? To get the Compact. The Compact agreement with the United States is basically says they get denial rights; they get the opportunity to come, transit. And, of course, if they need, build military facilities there. So, one of the facilities is being built --  currently being built, is a new radar site. They're, of course, improving the runways, want to expand the seaports.

RAO: That site is called the Tactical Mobile Over-the-Horizon Radar, or TACMOR. Unlike a traditional radar, TACMOR uses special techniques to see beyond the horizon. For example, it can bounce radio waves off the ionosphere, or along the surface of the earth. TACMOR will track movements related to battle. According to a report by Popular Science again, it’ll presumably do so at a fraction of the cost of deploying crewed ships and aircraft patrols to scan a targeted area. This helps the U-S military keep track of threats like hypersonic weapons, cruise missiles, and enemy ships. Having this radar in Palau means that the States can monitor the Western Pacific region… A place the DoD has increasingly suggested as a potential battlefield for the U-S. Now, not everyone in Palau agrees with this move.

WHIPPS: Some are concerned that this increased militarization, it creates a risk. But the other side of it is, if you're not prepared, you're also vulnerable. I'll just give you an example — Philippines. They've won in court, certain reefs that China has already taken over. And Palau, we, since I've been President four Chinese ships, have visited our EEZ.

RAO: That stands for Palau’s exclusive economic zone. It’s an area of ocean around a country’s coastline, generally 230 miles beyond it, within which a coastal nation, like Palau, has jurisdiction over both living and nonliving resources. Think of EEZ’s as a special zone where a country gets to call the shots over waters 230 miles beyond its territorial seas. Especially, when it comes to using the ocean’s resources near its shores.

WHIPPS: … Doing surveying activities within our EEZ, claiming they're not or they're hiding from storms, or whatever excuse they come up with. But we know they're there. We have aerial footage of them doing surveying activities, clearly not respecting rule of law, not following the rules-based world order. And, and that's why, you know, for me, having increased military presence, I always believe that presence is deterrence. As Reagan said, you want peace, you have to have strength. And really, at the end of the day, the partnership of Palau and the United States is all about securing peace, and a free and open Indo Pacific. And ensuring that we can continue to live this way. And it's our duty to ensure that we continue to have peace.

RAO: Doesn’t that contradict with the 2018 UN treaty that Palau ratified for the prohibition of nuclear weapons though?

RAO: More specifically, Palau is forbidden from engaging in any activity related to nuclear weapons and cannot permit their presence within its territory.

WHIPPS: Well, they're not building new nuclear weapons. Right? I don't know if a nuclear-powered ship is a nuclear weapon. Is a nuclear plant a nuclear weapon? This is an energy source. And so, depends on different views on nuclear, but one of the things that I know, as a small island, it's difficult to depend on renewable energy, just based on solar. It's going to be expensive. And you depend on batteries, and other rare earth metals, that require mining and, in some cases, now they're advocating mining the Deep Sea, which will also destroy our environment. So, you've got to look at this holistically and you've got to look at tackling problems from a global perspective. Nuclear is proven energy that we can use and if we harness properly, can deliver carbon-free energy. Basically, unlimited amounts.

RAO: Is Palau planning to do that?

WHIPPS: Palau is too small to really do it. But countries like Japan, for example, they should be using nuclear. Countries like Taiwan, China. But they should be regulated, they should be held to the highest standard. And you know, I went to visit Fukushima. Of course, that plant is closed, and they don’t plan to reopen it. But they also have 40 other plants that are closed, and one of my pleadings, the Japanese people's turn on these plants, because one of the things we saw was coal at every port, because to replace that power that they lost from nuclear, they're burning coal. And what is coal doing? Sinking our islands. So, is that the solution? So, you know, I think we got to look at all of these things holistically. And a lot of times, we just narrow and focus on nuclear weapons. But forget that this is an energy source, that really has huge potential.


Naina Rao serves as Isla Public Media's first News Director. She's extensively produced for National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Culture Desk, and 1A.
Gilayna Santos is Isla Public Media's former reporter/host.