Palau: a bold experiment in democracy

Most of the 15,000 citizens of the new Republic of Palau, some 220 islands in 500,000 square miles of the far Pacific, will be going to the polls on Feb. 10. Part of a United Nations trust territory since 1947, they will decide in a historic plebiscite whether to accept or reject an unprecedented ''free association'' with the United States. Their stakes are high.

Earlier Palau, with the Marshalls and other now-federated states, had rejected US-proposed territorial status or federation with other Micronesians. A 1969 status commission proposed something new: free association, giving the Palauans authority over internal, trade, and foreign affairs, but with a US defense umbrella and some US military rights which they swapped for guaranteed funds. The US accepted the concept in 1971.

The Compact of Free Association on which Palauans and, if they approve, later the US Congress will vote secures basic US interests while protecting Palau's autonomy and financial integrity.

Myth to the contrary, the Pacific islands are becoming feisty havens of democracy. Palauans do not wish to live in idyllic isolation, carving ''story boards'' and chewing betel nuts. Yes, they like to do this. But they are achievers who have always respected money and enterprise. Palau has joined the Asian-Pacific Parliamentarian Union and the South Pacific Commission. Financial and diplomatic plans are under way with the United Kingdom, Japan, Taiwan, and others.

In their bicameral congress, the 34 members, all elected, noisily enjoy political combat much as we Americans do. In fact, recent antinuclear squabbles are to some extent good old political scrapping. Anyone who fears that the US can put something over on Palau doesn't know the shrewd Palauans.

Palau and US activists overestimate Palau's strategic value to the US which, with far greater opportunities since 1945, has not acted on them. Rights in the compact will serve a number of purposes.

The US and Palau remember the Battle of Peleliu and wish to maintain the peace, which foreclosure of Palau to others for military uses can ensure. The military rights will help US passage of the compact; they justify the payment of area change. With the Soviets now controlling Cam Ranh Bay and Haiphong harbor, this is just common sense.

The US will have the right to use 40 acres of Malacal Harbor, and anchorage rights. But those who raise the specter of the Trident submarine don't know one from a three-pronged fork. A Trident base costs $2 billion; the Trident is self-contained; its missiles span 5,000 miles across the Pacific from port in the US. It would never be based in Palau.

With the large Subic naval base in the Philippines, and Guam and other facilities nearby, Palau's harbor is at most insurance.

The US will be able to improve and jointly use two airstrips, Airai and Angaur, with sole use of 65 acres at each. Clark Air Base in the Philippines is huge; others are at hand. Again: rights to the airstrips are insurance.

As for the nuclear issue, complicated by Palauan political jousting, impartial observers are satisfied that the US intends to respect Palau's nonnuclear stance, without so saying directly. In agreements signed in August 1982, the US pledges not to use nuclear power plants or reactors except on military ships; conduct nuclear testing; permit nuclear weapons except in the course of transit or overflight, or store radioactive material intended for weapons use other than in emergency in Palau. Alternate sites are available nearby.

Fortunately, President Reagan has not undone the agreements reached. On the contrary. After intensive review, his administration has reconfirmed them and is giving a final push to concluding the Compact of Free Association.

The US can be proud of its role as the trusteeship comes to an end. It has done right by the Palauans, enabling them to chart their future while guaranteeing the peace. It would be sad if the mythmakers scuttled the compact and, with it, Palau's ship of state.

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