Former Palau President Johnson Toribiong views his nation’s ties with the United States as “a cherished relationship,” calling the current Compact between Washington and Koror “the best deal we’ve ever had in our history.” 

Toribiong spoke to political science students at the University of Guam on Thursday night about the Compact of Free Association he negotiated with the U.S. government during his term as Palau’s president between 2009 and 2013.

Ahead of his lecture, he spoke to The Guam Daily Post about the agreement and his country’s relationship with the U.S. and role in the western Pacific.

“We signed the compact review agreement on Sept. 3, 2010, in Honolulu. Eight years later, it was funded,” said Toribiong. “It was a long wait.”

Palau did continue to receive roughly $13 million annually from Washington while waiting for the $250 million promised in the 2010 agreement which was finally authorized in March 2018.

Toribiong said he believes the agreement, and the funding that comes with it, is a reflection of “the irreplaceable value of Palau’s geographical situation to the U.S. defense and Pacific policies.”

It’s also a reflection of the U.S. concern about the growing presence of China in the region, said Toribiong.

“The fact that the U.S. government did appropriate money to fund the agreement is in part a reaction to the presence of China in the South China Sea,” he said.

He noted that the U.S. government is in the process of establishing two main radar systems in Palau. One is being installed on the main island of Babeldaob and another on the southern island or Ngeaur. The radar systems are capable of monitoring Chinese military activities in the skies and waters around Palau and beyond.

The U.S. presence “is more recognizable in Palau now,” said Toribiong. And his country has paid a price for its close ties to the U.S. and its continued recognition of Taiwan.

China backlash

In 2013 and 2014, there was “a tsunami of mainland Chinese visitors overwhelming Palau,” said Toribiong. “They overbuilt Palau to accommodate them.”

Suddenly, in 2015, that changed. China stopped direct flights to Palau and stopped promoting Palau as a tourist destination.

“They said it was because we didn’t have diplomatic relations with them,” said Toribiong. The number of tourists plunged, he said.

Compact-impact aid

He hasn't changed his view of the need to continue strong relations with the U.S. “Yes, it is in Palau’s long-term interest," he said.

Toribiong also acknowledged that he is aware of and sensitive to the issue of Compact migrants and the cost imposed on Guam for providing services to them.

“I realize it's a big social, economic and political issue here,” he said. But the best way to resolve it is for the federal government to provide funding to cover those costs, not by restricting Compact migration.

"It's important for the U.S. to support Guam, to pay for the costs of accommodating the economic migrants from the (Federated States of Micronesia), Palau and the Marshall Islands,” Toribiong said.