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 as she begins a visit Sunday, flying to an island province facing the disputed South China Sea. 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 economic ties and strengthening Washington’s oldest treaty alliance in Asia, a senior US administration official said. , in an online briefing prior to the visit, was not identified as per practice.

Harris said his trip to Thailand was “absolutely successful” as he reiterated the US commitment to the region during a roundtable discussion on climate change on Sunday afternoon.

The panel of climate activists, civil society members and business leaders focused on clean energy and climate change threats 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 financing for clean energy in the region through the Japan-US Mekong Power Partnership.

Before her flight, she stopped at a local market, browsed a bevy of shops, chatted with shopkeepers, and bought Thai green curry paste.

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

The Philippine Coast Guard will welcome Harris in Palawan aboard one of its largest patrol vessels, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, where she will deliver a speech, Coast Guard spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo said.

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The US official said Harris would underline the importance of international law, unimpeded commerce and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

China can view the visit as it wants, the official added in response to a question, but Washington’s message is that, as a member of the Indo-Pacific, it 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 the level of US support for an ally and concern over China’s actions in the disputed sea.

“It’s as clear as you can get that the message they’re trying to send to the Chinese is, ‘We support our allies like the Philippines on these disputed islands,'” Romualdez told The Associated Press. “This visit is an important step in showing how seriously the United States takes this situation.”

Washington and Beijing are on a collision course in long-contested waters. While the US has no claim to the strategic waterway, which carries about $5 trillion in global trade each year, it has said freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea is in the US’s national interest.

China objects to the US Navy and Air Force patrolling the busy waterway, which is fully claimed by Beijing. It has warned Washington not to intervene in what it says is a purely Asian territorial conflict – which has become a subtle front in the US-China rivalry in the region and has long been feared as a flashpoint.

In July, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on China to abide by a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s broad territorial claims in the South China Sea and warned that Washington would be obligated to defend treaty ally the Philippines if its troops, ships or aircraft came. Attack in disputed waters.

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China rejected a 2016 decision by an arbitration 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 aggressive actions in the disputed waters. Beijing did not participate in the arbitration, rejecting its ruling as a sham and continuing to defy it.

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

US relations with the Philippines entered a difficult period under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who threatened to sever ties with Washington, expel visiting American troops, and once sought to scrap a key defense deal with the US while cultivating friendly ties with China and Russia. .

When President Joe Biden met Marcos Jr. for the first time in New York in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, he emphasized the depth of America’s ties to the Philippines despite some headwinds.

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

Romualdez said the reconciliation comes at a critical time for the US to build up its defense presence amid growing security threats in the region.

Philippine military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacaro said last week that the United States wants to build five more military facilities in the northern Philippines under a 2014 defense cooperation agreement. Military camps.

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The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign military bases, but at least two defense treaties allow temporary visits by U.S. forces using their aircraft and naval vessels for joint military exercises, combat training, and defense to respond to natural disasters.

The northern Philippines is strategically located across the strait from Taiwan and could serve as a critical outpost should tensions between China and the autonomous island escalate.

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

Aiming to deepen ties, the Biden administration will have to contend with human rights groups’ concerns about Marcos Jr. The Philippine leader staunchly defended the legacy of his father, who was ousted amid human rights abuses during the 1986 pro-democracy uprising. And loot.

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

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

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

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Associated Press writer Kritika Pati contributed from Bangkok.

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