US and Palau Strengthen Maritime Security Responding to Chinese Incursions

USCG fishing inspection
New agreement with Palau expands the USCG's long-standing efforts in the Pacific targeting illegal fishing and as a deterrent to Chinese incursions (USCG file photo)

Published Aug 29, 2023 6:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

The United States has signed an expanded bilateral law enforcement agreement with the small Pacific nation of Palau located in the western Pacific east of the Philippines. This latest agreement which follows similar U.S. diplomatic moves in the region is seen as another step in the U.S.-China chess game for influence in the region and in response to Palau’s support of the U.S. while highlighting what it said were recent “unwanted activities” by China.

The U.S. has had a strong relationship with the Republic of Palau which is comprised of approximately 340 islands, islets, and atolls. The U.S. was assigned by the United Nations administrative authority to the region after World War II and for more than two decades has had the Compact of Free Association, which was enhanced last spring. 

U.S. officials highlighted today that they signed a new agreement with Palau on August 23 designed to strengthen maritime security and stewardship in the Pacific. They called the agreement a “regional milestone,” which enables the U.S. Coast Guard to enforce regulations at sea in Palau's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Under the terms, the U.S. Coast Guard is permitted to undertake boarding and security efforts on behalf of Palau without a Palauan officer present.

"The United States and the Republic of Palau share common interests and values supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific," said U.S. Embassy Koror's Chargé d'Affaires, Andrew McLean. “This agreement will help us meet our security commitments in Palau by increasing maritime domain awareness and preventing IUU Fishing within Palau's EEZ.”

Officially, the focus of the agreement is to protect against Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing, while Palau’s President Surangel Whipps, Jr., noted that he hopes it will also “deter uninvited vessels from conducting questionable maneuvers within our waters.”

Earlier this year, Whipps called out the United States highlighting under the long-standing agreements the U.S. is responsible for his country’s security. He told reporters that Chinese boats have made at least three “uninvited” entries into Palau’s territorial waters in the last two years. He has accused China of conducting “surveying activities” while the scope of China’s illegal fishing activities is well known.

During the signing ceremony, President Whipps said, "Presence is deterrence. This agreement significantly strengthens presence and enforcement options to counter illicit maritime activity in Palau’s EEZ.”

The agreement with Palau follows a similar agreement the U.S. entered into with the Federated States of Micronesia in October 2022 which also permits the USCG to conduct boardings and activities in the country’s waters. The U.S. in May 2023 also entered into a new agreement with Papua New Guinea and recently undertook its first joint maritime operations with the country. Over the past few weeks, the USCG sent three cutters, USCGC Frederick Hatch, USCGC Myrtle Hazard, and USCGC Oliver Henry, into the region, conducting four patrols over 44 days and conducting seven boardings.

The U.S. has moved to expand its agreements after in the summer of 2022 it was turned away by the Solomon Islands, which is seen as moving to support China. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter requested permission for a pre-planned visit and resupply stop in the Solomon Islands, but the government did not respond and grant the permission. The government of the Solomon Islands later said it intended to close its ports to all foreign naval ships.

The USCG highlights that the U.S. has a total of 12 bilateral maritime law enforcement agreements with Pacific Island countries. The U.S. has been actively supporting the Philippines in its recent interactions with the Chinese, including the recent resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal. The Coast Guard also annually undertakes exercises and patrols in the region. In addition to enforcement activities, it is seen as an effort to display the flag and deter further Chinese incursions across the region.