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

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris will underscore America’s commitment to protecting treaty ally the Philippines with a visit that begins Sunday and includes a flight to an island province facing the disputed South China Sea, where Washington has accused China of bullying more the small challenger nations.

After attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand, Harris will fly Sunday night to Manila and meet 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, who was not identified as a matter of practice, said in an online briefing ahead of 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 climate change roundtable discussion.

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

Before taking off, she stopped at a local market and browsed a maze of shops, struck up conversations with vendors and bought Thai green curry paste.

On Tuesday, she 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 most senior US leader to visit the border island at the forefront of long-simmering 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 deliver a speech, according to Coast Guard spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo.

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Harris will emphasize 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 wants, the official added in response to a question, but the message from Washington is that the US, as a member of the Indo-Pacific region, 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 showed the level of America’s support for an ally and concern about China’s actions in the disputed sea.

“It’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 in these disputed islands,'” Romualdez told The Associated Press. “This visit is a significant step in showing how seriously the United States takes this situation now.”

Washington and Beijing have long clashed in contentious waters. While the US has no claim to the strategic waterway, through which $5 trillion in global trade passes each year, it has said freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea is in America’s national interest.

China opposes US Navy and Air Force patrols in the busy waterway, which Beijing claims almost entirely. He has warned Washington against meddling in what he says is a purely Asian territorial dispute – which has become a delicate frontline in the US-China rivalry in the region and has long been feared as a potential flashpoint.

In July, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on China to comply with a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping 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 come under attack in disputed waters.

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China rejected a 2016 ruling by an arbitral tribunal set up in The Hague under the UN 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 its ruling as bogus, and continues to oppose it.

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

America’s relationship with the Philippines entered a difficult period under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who threatened to cut ties with Washington and expel visiting American forces and once tried to cancel a major defense pact with the US while maintaining 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 United Nations General Assembly, he underscored the depth with which the US views its relationship with the Philippines despite some headwinds.

“We’ve had difficult times, but the fact is that it’s a critical, critical relationship from our point of view. I hope you feel the same way,” Biden said at the time. Marcos Jr. told him, “We are your partners. We are your allies. We are your friends.”

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

Philippine Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacaro said last week that the U.S. wants to build military facilities in five more areas in the northern Philippines under a 2014 defense cooperation pact that allows U.S. forces to build warehouses and temporary housing in Philippine 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 Navy ships for joint military exercises, combat training and natural disaster response training.

The northern Philippines is strategically located across the strait from Taiwan and could serve as a crucial outpost should tensions between China and the self-ruled island worsen.

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

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

Harris also plans to meet with Vice President Sara Duterte, the daughter of Marcos’ predecessor, who led a deadly campaign against drugs that has killed thousands of mostly poor suspects and prompted 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 of democracy and human rights, her officials said human rights were 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 U.S. commitment and continued support for human rights and democratic resilience, the U.S. official said.

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Associated Press writer Krutika Patti contributed from Bangkok.

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