VP Harris to visit front-line Philippine island in sea feud

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Vice President Kamala Harris will underscore America’s commitment to defending treaty ally the Philippines with a visit that begins Sunday and involves flying to an island province facing the disputed South China Sea, where Washington has accused China of bullying a smaller claimant. nations

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

Harris said her trip to Thailand was “quite successful” as she reiterated the U.S. commitment to the region Sunday afternoon at a roundtable discussion on climate change.

The panel of climate activists, members of civil society 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 transport. Harris announced the United States’ plans to provide up to $20 million in financing for clean energy in the region through the Japan-US Mekong Power Partnership.

Before her flight, she stopped at a local market and browsed 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 lies along the South China Sea, to meet fishermen, villagers, officials and the coast guard. Once there, she will be the highest-ranking US leader to visit the border island at the forefront of the long-running 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 she is scheduled to give a speech, according to Coast Guard spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo.

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Harris will emphasize 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 wants, the official added in response to a question, but the message from Washington is that the United States, as a member of the Indo-Pacific, is committed and committed to the security of its allies in the region.

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

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

Washington and Beijing have long been on a collision course in the contested waters. While the United States does not claim the strategic waterway, where about $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 opposes U.S. Navy and Air Force patrols in the busy waterway, which Beijing claims almost entirely. It has warned Washington not to meddle in what it says is a purely Asian territorial dispute – which has become a delicate front in the US-China rivalry in the region and has long been feared as a potential flashpoint.

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

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China rejected the 2016 ruling by an arbitral 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, rejected its decision as a fraud and continues to challenge it.

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

America’s relations with the Philippines entered a difficult period under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who threatened to sever ties with Washington and expel visiting American troops, and at one time tried to end a major defense pact with the United States while nurturing cozy ties with China and Russia. .

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

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

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

Philippine military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro said last week that the United States wants to build military facilities in five more locations in the northern Philippines under a 2014 defense cooperation pact that allows U.S. forces to build warehouses and temporary housing inside the Philippines. military camps.

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The Philippine Constitution prohibits foreign military bases but at least two defense pacts allow temporary visits by US forces with their aircraft and naval ships for joint military exercises, combat training and bracing to respond to natural disasters.

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

Harris spoke briefly with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Saturday while entering a closed-door meeting at APEC. When asked Sunday if they discussed Taiwan or North Korea, she repeated that they talked about “keeping open lines of communication.”

While seeking to deepen ties, the Biden administration must contend with concerns from human rights groups about Marcos Jr. The Philippine leader has staunchly defended the legacy of his father, a dictator who was ousted in a 1986 pro-democracy uprising amid human rights atrocities. and looting.

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

Given the Biden administration’s high-profile advocacy for democracy and human rights, its officials said human rights are at the top of the agenda in each of their engagements with Marcos Jr. and his officials.

After his 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.


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