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No 'free ride' under free association: U.S. military footprint ahead for Palau

Koror—By the time Palauans gather to celebrate their nation’s 23rd Independence Day on October 1, a diplomatic note is expected to have arrived from the United States government formally exercising its right under the Compact of Free Association to use additional lands not identified under the compact agreement. That provision obligates Palau to provide the land without compensation.

It’s a poignant reminder that it isn’t going to be free-ride under the compact agreement after all.

In July, the United States submitted its proposal to the Palau government for use of several locations to install a series of radar towers around the island archipelago. This comes at a time of heightened tension with North Korea, which recently threatened to fire ballistic missiles near Guam.

“The radar systems will provide Palau enhanced maritime law enforcement capability in its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone while also providing the United States with greater air domain awareness for aviation safety and security,” said a joint statement from the Office of the President of Palau and the U.S. Embassy in Koror.

Identified locations for air and maritime radar system sites include two designated areas for the air and five for maritime towers.

The air radars will occupy a large swath of land which will be exclusively used by the United States military. Fifty-five acres of land in Ngaraard State and another 65 acres in Angaur have been designated for these towers. Marine site lots will be much smaller, with an area of 1,000 square meters.

Delegate Mario Gulibert and Governor Ken Uyehara of Angaur have appealed to the national government to lease the areas and in turn sublease the land to the U.S military to protect the landowners from losing their rights forever.

“This 65 acres is almost one-fifth the size of Angaur State,” said Delegate Mario Gulibert, a congressional representative of a tiny island to the south of the main Palau island. The state legislature however, is fully in support of the adoption of a resolution endorsing the radar installations in the state.

Palau Vice President Raynold B. Oilouch, who is leading Palau’s technical team in the radar discussion with United States, said that the lands are likely to be leased.

“The United States intends to use the areas until year 2044, which is why the lease option is favorable as the land could be returned to the landowners after expiration,” Vice President Oilouch reported to the Palau leadership on August 29.

The United States informed Palau during a meeting in August of its desire to use of specific sites around the island. Palau received a delay on its response to allow time to prepare its response to the proposal. Based on the compact terms, once a formal request is submitted, Palau must make available the designated land or make available alternative sites acceptable to the United States within 60 days.

Compensation for the landowners is the main sticking point in the negotiation with the United States. Ambassador to Palau, Amy J. Hyatt, who headed the U.S. technical team, informed the Palau government that the United States has no obligation under the compact to provide compensation for additional land for its use.

Vice President Oilouch, however, stressed that Guam Accord makes it clear that aside from the land identified in the compact, if the U.S. seeks additional lands, then Palau may request United States financial assistance. The Guam Accord is a subsidiary compact agreement concerning special programs related to the entry into force of the Compact Of Free Association between the government of the United States and the government of the Republic of Palau. It was negotiated and signed on May 26, 1989 after the original compact agreement was signed in 1982.

“[The] Guam Accord turned the tide for us in the discussion,” Oilouch said.

After being reminded of the Guam Accord, the United States wanted a proposal. Palau is preparing an appraisal report which could put the land valuation anywhere between $4 million and $10 million dollars, according to a rough estimate from the vice president.

Palau’s Independence Day is the date the Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Republic of Palau went into effect, October 1, 1994, although the island country has actually been independent since May 25, 1994 when the trusteeship ended.

Palau’s path toward political sovereignty was marked by upheavals that plunged the country into its darkest hours, with government strikes, shootings, firebombings and suicides taking place in the course of eight referenda on the compact agreement.

According to the US Government Accountability Office, the United States has provided about $574 million in compact assistance to Palau, including $70 million to establish Palau’s compact trust fund and $149 million for road construction in the compact’s first 15 years — fiscal years 1995 through 2009.

On September 3, 2010, another agreement extending the economic provisions of the compact until 2024 was signed by the two countries, but it has yet to receive U.S. congressional approval.

Both countries hope to conclude their talks on the radar sites ahead of the Joint Consultation Meeting to be held in Hawaii in October. “If an agreement is reached, it will be signed at the consultation meeting,” said Vice President Oilouch.

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