Melekeok, Palau – U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel assured Palau that the U.S. continues to consider Palau a strong ally and stressed that its relationship with pacific island nations is a priority.
“America’s sustained engagement, our investment in the Pacific is part of our broader Pacific rebalance, it is one priority everybody in Washington agreed on,” Russel said in his address before the Olbiil Era Kelulau (OEK, the Palau National Congress).
Russel addressed members of the OEK on Friday after holding bilateral talks with President Tommy Remengesau Jr. on Feb. 24.
Palau brought up the issue of its Compact financial package, which remains pending before the U.S. Congress.
Remengesau earlier expressed frustration at the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass the measure that earmarks $250 million for Palau over the next 15 years. The Compact agreement was approved in 2010, but the economic package approval remains in Congress.
In his address before the OEK, Russel said he understands Palauans are frustrated that Congress hasn’t passed the economic package.
“We are working hard for the Compact review funds. We know that the delay has placed a real burden on Palau, and the delay makes it difficult to set budget, make longer-term plans,” he said.
“All the agencies that work with Palau, from the White House, Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, we are all pressing Congress on the funding issue and we will not give up,” Russel said.
Palau House Speaker Sabino Anastacio in his remarks before introducing Russel to deliver his address also expressed dissatisfaction over the U.S.’s “inadequate assistance under the Compact.
“The U.S. has shown only limited support for commercial investment in Palau. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China has significantly increased its investment in Palau, so much so, in fact, that it far exceeds American involvement in our local economy,” Anastacio said.
One of the pressing issues in Palau is the growing number of Chinese tourists and investments, which worry several sectors as the growth is squeezing out other tourism markets and overtaking the Palauan economy.
But Russel in his address said the U.S. would fulfill its commitment to Palau.
“Palau and America’s relationship is built on equal partnership, on shared prosperity, environmental preservation, climate protection and steadfast perseverance. Our partnership in that under the Compact is rock solid,” he added.
Russel assured Palau that the U.S. would continue to be strongly involved in Palau’s economy. He also added that the U.S. would ensure the country’s security and protect the island nation.
“The US-Palau relationship is secure, we are determined to do more. We are proud to be Palau’s friend and partner,” he said.
He said the U.S. lauds Palau’s commitment to combat climate change and illegal fishing. Russel also highlighted the island nation’s creation of a Palau National Marine Sanctuary, which will set aside 80 percent of the nation’s maritime territory as a reserve.
He noted that one issue that the Obama administration shares with Palau is to aim for a cleaner environment and fight illegal fishing.
“We don’t think of Palau as a small island nation, it is recognized as large ocean of country, we share Palau’s leadership and vision in protecting in the ocean,” he said.
According to a press statement from Russel’s office,” this high-level trip demonstrates the United States’ enduring commitment to the Pacific Islands region and the whole-of-government approach to enhancing bilateral political, economic and security relations in the Pacific. The trip also underscores continued U.S. support of the issues that are of utmost importance to pacific islands, including climate change, the ocean, maritime security, women’s empowerment, sustainable development and health.
While in Palau, Russel also visited the Civil Action Team projects, toured the Marine law facility and Palau’s lone patrol boat, the P.S.S. Remiliik. He also visited an elementary school in Palau.