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 starting Sunday that includes flying to an island province facing the disputed South China Sea, where Washington has accused China of harassment of smaller claimants. 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 agreement in Asia and strengthening economic ties. , said a senior representative of the US administration. , who was not identified as per the practice, in an online briefing before the visit.

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

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 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 her vacation, she stopped by the local market and browsed the maze of shops, struck up conversations with the 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 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 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.

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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 as 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, 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 the level of America’s support for the ally and concerns about China’s activities 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 views this situation now.”

Washington and Beijing have long been at odds in the disputed waters. While the US has no claim to the strategic waterway, where an estimated $5 trillion in global trade transits each year, it says 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 virtually in its entirety. It has warned Washington against meddling in what it 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 vast territorial claims in the South China Sea and warned that Washington was obliged to defend the Philippines, a treaty ally, if its forces , ships or aircraft falling under control. attack in disputed waters.

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China rejected a 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, dismissed its ruling as fraudulent and continues to defy it.

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

America’s relationship with the Philippines entered a rocky period under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who threatened to sever ties with Washington and expel visiting American forces, and once tried to scrap a key defense pact with USA while cultivating 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 the depth with which the US views its relationship with the Philippines despite some headwinds.

“We’ve had some tough times, but the fact is that it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective. I hope you feel the same,” Biden said at the time. Marcos Junior 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 formidable presence amid growing security threats in the region, Romualdez said.

Philippine military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacaro said last week that the US wants to build military facilities in five more areas in the northern Philippines under a 2014 defense cooperation pact that allows US forces to build warehouses and temporary residential premises in the Philippines. military camps.

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

The northern part of the Philippines is strategically located across the strait from Taiwan and could serve as a key staging post should tensions between China and the self-ruled island escalate.

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

While aiming to deepen ties, the Biden administration has to 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 a pro-democracy uprising in 1986 for human rights abuses. and robbery.

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

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

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

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Associated Press writer Krutika Patti contributed from Bangkok.

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