VP Harris to Visit Frontline Philippine Island in Maritime Dispute

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris will underscore the United States’ commitment to defending the Philippines, a treaty ally, with a visit that begins Sunday and involves flying to an island province off the disputed South China Sea, where Washington accused China of intimidating a smaller claimant. nations

After attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand, Harris flew out Sunday night for a red-carpet welcome in Manila. He will meet with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Monday for talks aimed at bolstering Washington’s oldest treaty alliance in Asia and strengthening economic ties, a senior US administration official, who was not identified according to practice, said. in an online briefing prior to the visit.

Harris said her trip to Thailand was “quite successful” and reiterated the United States’ commitment to the region Sunday afternoon at a roundtable on climate change.

The panel of climate activists, civil society members and business leaders focused on clean energy and the threat climate change poses to the Mekong River, which more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia use for food, water and transportation. Harris announced that the US plans to provide up to $20 million in funding for clean energy in the region through the US-Japan Mekong Energy Partnership.

Before her flight, she stopped at a local market and perused a maze of shops, struck up conversations with the vendors, and bought Thai green curry paste.

On Tuesday, he will fly to Palawan province, which lies along the South China Sea, to meet with fishermen, villagers, officials and the coast guard. Once there, she will be the highest-ranking American leader to visit the border island at the forefront of longstanding territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The Philippine coast guard is scheduled to welcome Harris aboard one of its largest patrol vessels, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, in Palawan, where he is scheduled to deliver a speech, according to coast guard spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo.

Harris will stress the importance of international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the US official said.

China can view the visit however it likes, the official added in response to a question, but Washington’s message is that the United States, as a member of the Indo-Pacific, is committed to the security of its allies in the region.

Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez said Harris’s trip to Palawan shows the level of US support for an ally and concern over China’s actions in the disputed sea.

“It’s as obvious as you can get that the message they’re trying to get across to the Chinese is ‘we stand with our allies like the Philippines on these disputed islands,'” Romualdez told The Associated Press. “This visit is a significant step in showing how seriously the United States views this situation now.”

Washington and Beijing have long been on a collision course in disputed waters. While the US does not claim the strategic waterway, where an estimated $5 trillion in global trade transits each year, it has said that freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea is in the US national interest.

China opposes US Navy and Air Force patrols of the busy waterway, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety. He has warned Washington against meddling in what he says is a purely Asian territorial conflict, which has become a sensitive front line in the US-China rivalry in the region and has long been feared as a possible decisive point.

In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on China to comply with a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea and warned that Washington is obligated to defend to the treaty ally Philippines if its forces, ships or aircraft fall under control. attack in disputed waters.

China rejected a 2016 decision by an arbitration tribunal established in The Hague under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea after the Philippine government complained in 2013 of China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the disputed waters. Beijing did not participate in the arbitration, rejected its ruling as a sham and continues to challenge it.

Harris’s visit is the latest sign of the growing relationship between Washington and Manila under Marcos Jr., who took office in June after a landslide electoral victory.

US relations with the Philippines entered a rocky period under Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who threatened to break ties with Washington and expel visiting US forces, and once tried to abrogate a major defense pact with the United States. while fostering cozy ties with China and Russia. .

When President Joe Biden met Marcos Jr. for the first time in September in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, he emphasized how deeply the United States views its relations with the Philippines despite some obstacles.

“We’ve had some tough times, but the fact remains that it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective. I hope you feel the same,” Biden said then. Marcos Jr. told him: “We are your partners. We are your allies. We are your friends.”

The outreach came at a crucial time when the United States needed to build a deterrent presence amid growing security threats in the region, Romualdez said.

The Philippine military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Bartolomé 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, which allows US forces build warehouses and temporary housing inside the Philippines. military camps.

The Philippine Constitution prohibits foreign military bases, but at least two defense pacts allow temporary visits by US forces with their Navy planes and ships for joint military exercises, combat training and support in responding to natural disasters.

The northern Philippines is strategically located across the Taiwan Strait and could serve as a crucial outpost should tensions between China and the autonomous island worsen.

Harris spoke briefly with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Saturday as he addressed a closed-door meeting at APEC. Asked Sunday if they discussed Taiwan or North Korea, he reiterated that they talked about “keeping the lines of communication open.”

As he seeks to deepen ties, the Biden administration has to grapple with concerns from human rights groups about Marcos Jr. The Filipino leader has staunchly defended the legacy of his father, a dictator who was ousted in a pro-law uprising. democracy in 1986 amid human rights atrocities. and plunder.

Harris also plans to meet Vice President Sara Duterte, the daughter of Marcos’s predecessor, who oversaw a deadly drug crackdown that left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead and prompted an International Criminal Court investigation as a possible crime against humanity. . The vice president has defended the presidency of her father.

Given the Biden administration’s high-profile advocacy for democracy and human rights, his officials have said that human rights were at the top of the agenda in every one of his engagements with Marcos Jr. and his officials.

Following his meeting with Marcos Jr. on Monday, Harris plans to meet with civil society activists to demonstrate the commitment and continued US support for human rights and democratic resilience, the US official said.

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Associated Press writer Krutika Pathi in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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