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 starting Sunday that includes a flight to the island nation facing the South China Sea. there is a dispute about it, where Washington has accused China of bullying a claimant smaller nations.

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

Harris said her trip to Thailand was “quite successful” as she reiterated the United States’ 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 that climate change poses to the Mekong River, which more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia use on for food, water and transport. 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 she flew out, she stopped by a local market and followed a maze of shops, had conversations with shop owners and bought Thai green curry paste.

On Tuesday she will fly to the province of Palawan, which is along the South China Sea, to meet fishermen, villagers, officials and coastguards. Once there, she will be the highest-ranking US leader to visit the border island at the forefront of long-running territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

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

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

China can see the visit as it wants, the official added in response to a question, but Washington’s message 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 showed America’s level of support for an ally and concern over China’s actions in the disputed sea.

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

Washington and Beijing have long been on a collision course in the contested waters. Although the United States has no claims to the strategic waterway, where there is an estimated $5 trillion in global trade each year, it has said freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea is in America’s national interest.

China objects to US Navy and Air Force patrols in the busy waterway, which Beijing claims almost entirely. He has warned Washington not to intervene in what he says is a purely Asian territorial conflict – which has become a delicate front in the rivalry between the US and China in the region and has been long feared as a potential flashpoint.

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

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China has rejected a 2016 decision by an arbitral tribunal established 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, rejected its award as a sham 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 relationship with the Philippines hit a rocky patch under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who threatened to cut ties with Washington and expel visiting American forces, and once tried to scrap a major defense deal with the United States while fostering cozy relations with China and Russia. .

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

“We have had some rocky periods, but the fact is that it is a critical, critical relationship, from our point of view. I hope you feel the same way,” Biden said at the time. Marcos Jr. said. to him, “We are your partners. We are your allies. We are your friends.”

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

Philippine military chief of staff Lt Gen. Bartolome Bacarro last week that the United States wants to build military facilities in five other areas in the northern Philippines under the 2014 defense cooperation agreement, which allows American forces to build warehouses and temporary living spaces within Philippine military camps.

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

The northern Philippines is strategically located across the strait from Taiwan and could be a vital outpost in case tensions escalate between China and the self-governing island.

Harris spoke briefly with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Saturday while entering a closed-door meeting at APEC. Asked on Sunday whether they were discussing Taiwan or North Korea, she reiterated that they were talking about “keeping the lines of communication open.”

In 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 with Vice President Sara Duterte, the daughter of Marcos’ predecessor, who oversaw a deadly anti-drug campaign that left thousands of mostly ill suspects dead and prompted an International Criminal Court investigation as a crime possible 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 are at the top of the agenda in all of their engagements with Marcos Jr. and its officers.

After her meeting Monday with Marcos Jr., Harris plans to meet with civil society activists to show the United States’ commitment and continued support for human rights and democratic resilience, the US official said.

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Associated Press writer Krutika Pathi contributed from Bangkok.

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