MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris will underline America’s commitment to defending treaty ally the Philippines with a visit beginning Sunday that will fly to an island province overlooking the disputed South China Sea, where Washington China has accused smaller plaintiff of bullying countries.
After attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand, Harris will fly to Manila on Sunday night and meet President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Monday. , who was not identified according to practice, in an online briefing prior to the visit.
Harris said her trip to Thailand was “quite successful” as she reiterated America’s commitment to the region at a climate change roundtable on Sunday afternoon.
The panel of climate activists, civil society members and business leaders focused on clean energy and the threat posed by climate change to the Mekong River, which more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia use for food, water and transportation. Harris announced US plans to provide up to $20 million in funding for clean energy in the region through the Japan-US Mekong Power Partnership.
Before leaving, she stopped at a local market and rummaged through a maze of shops, striking up conversations with shopkeepers and buying Thai green curry paste.
On Tuesday, she will fly to Palawan province, which is on the South China Sea, to meet with fishermen, villagers, officials and the coast guard. Once there, she will be the Supreme American leader to visit the border island at the forefront of the long-swirling territorial disputes between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
According to Coast Guard Commander Commodore Armand Balilo, the Philippine Coast Guard will welcome Harris aboard one of their largest patrol vessels, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, in Palawan, where she will give a speech.
Harris will underline the importance of international law, unfettered trade and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the US official said.
China can view the visit as it pleases, the official added in response to a question, but the message from Washington is that the US, as a member of the Indo-Pacific, is engaged and committed to the security of its allies in the region .
Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez said Harris’ trip to Palawan shows America’s level of support for an ally and concern over China’s actions in the disputed sea.
“It’s as clear as you can get that the message they’re trying to get across to the Chinese is that ‘we support our allies like the Philippines on these disputed islands,'” Romualdez told The Associated Press. “This visit is an important step in demonstrating how seriously the United States is now taking this situation.”
Washington and Beijing have long been on a collision course in the contested waters. While the US has no claim to the strategic waterway, through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes annually, it has said that freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea is in America’s national interest.
China is resisting US naval and air force patrols in the busy waterway, which Beijing claims almost entirely. It has warned Washington not to get involved in what it says is a purely Asian territorial conflict — which has become a delicate frontline in the region’s US-China rivalry and has long been feared as a potential focal point.
In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on China to comply with a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s massive territorial claims in the South China Sea and warned that Washington is obligated to defend ally Philippines if its forces, ships or aircraft are under attack in the disputed waters.
China has overturned the 2016 decision by an arbitration tribunal set up in The Hague under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea after the Philippine government complained in 2013 about China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the disputed waters. Beijing did not participate in the arbitration, dismissed the ruling as a sham and continues to challenge it.
Harris’s visit is the latest sign of a growing relationship between Washington and Manila led by Marcos Jr., who took office in June after a landslide election victory.
America’s relations with the Philippines entered a rough patch under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who threatened to cut ties with Washington and expel visiting US troops, and once tried to cancel a major defense pact with the US while he cozy ties with China and Russia. .
When President Joe Biden Marcos Jr. first met in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, he emphasized how deep the US considers its relationship with the Philippines, despite some headwinds.
“We’ve had some tough times, but the fact is, from our perspective, it’s a critical, critical relationship. I hope you feel the same way,” Biden said at the time. Marco Jr. said to him, ‘We are your partners. We are your allies. We’re your friends.”
The rapprochement came at a crucial time when the US needed to build a deterrent presence amid rising security threats in the region, Romualdez said.
Philippine military chief of staff Lieutenant General Bartolome Bacarro said last week that the US wanted to build military facilities in five more areas in the northern Philippines under a 2014 defense cooperation pact that would allow US troops to build warehouses and temporary living quarters in the Philippines. military camps.
The Constitution of the Philippines prohibits foreign military bases, but at least two defense pacts allow temporary visits by US troops with their aircraft and naval vessels for joint military exercises, combat training and reinforcement to respond to natural disasters.
Strategically located across a strait from Taiwan, the northern Philippines could serve as a crucial outpost should tensions between China and the self-governing island worsen.
Harris spoke briefly with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Saturday as he headed to a closed-door meeting at APEC. When asked on Sunday whether they were discussing Taiwan or North Korea, she reiterated that they were talking about “keeping lines of communication open.”
As it strives to deepen ties, the Biden administration has faced concerns from human rights groups about Marcos Jr. The Philippine leader has steadfastly defended the legacy of his father, a dictator who was ousted in a 1986 pro-democracy uprising amid human rights atrocities. and plunder.
Harris also plans to meet with Vice President Sara Duterte, daughter of Marcos’ predecessor, who oversaw a deadly anti-drug campaign that left thousands of mostly impoverished suspects dead and led to an investigation by the International Criminal Court as a possible crime against humanity. The vice president has defended her father’s presidency.
Given the Biden administration’s high-profile advocacy for democracy and human rights, its officials have said that human rights were at the top of the agenda in each of their dealings with Marcos Jr. and its officers.
Following her meeting Monday with Marcos Jr., Harris plans to meet with civil society activists to demonstrate US commitment and continued support for human rights and democratic resilience, the US official said.
Associated Press writer Krutika Pathi contributed from Bangkok.