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

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Vice President Kamala Harris, on a trip that begins Sunday and will include a flight to an island province facing the disputed South China Sea, where Washington has accused China of bullying the smaller claimant, will reiterate America’s commitment to defending treaty ally the Philippines will emphasize. 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 to discuss strengthening Washington’s oldest alliance in Asia and the Pacific, a senior US administration official said. to discuss the strengthening of economic relations. , which is not determined by practice, in the online briefing before the trip.

Harris said his visit to Thailand was “very successful” as he reiterated US commitment to the region at a climate change roundtable.

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

Before her flight, she stopped at a local market and browsed the maze of stalls, chatted with shopkeepers and bought some Thai green curry paste.

On Tuesday, he will fly to Palawan province on the South China Sea to meet with fishermen, villagers, officials and coast guards. He will then be the highest-ranking US leader to visit the border island at the forefront of long-running regional disputes with 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 will deliver a speech, according to Coast Guard spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo.

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Harris will emphasize the importance of international law, free trade and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a 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 is engaged as a member of the Indo-Pacific region and is committed to the security of its allies in the region.

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

“It’s as clear as possible that the message they want to send to the Chinese is that ‘we support our allies like the Philippines in these disputed islands,'” Romualdez told The Associated Press. It shows how seriously the United States takes this situation.”

Washington and Beijing have long been on a collision course in contentious waters. While the U.S. does not claim the strategic route, which transits about $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 opposes U.S. Navy and Air Force patrols along the busy road, which Beijing claims is virtually all of it. It has warned Washington not to intervene in the purely Asian territorial dispute, which has become a sensitive front line 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, warning that Washington had a duty to defend treaty ally the Philippines. if his troops, ships or planes are attacked. attack in disputed waters.

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After the Philippine government complained in 2013 about China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the disputed waters, China rejected a 2016 decision by an arbitral tribunal in The Hague, established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing did not take part in the arbitration, rejected its verdict as fake and continues 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 and withdraw US troops and once tried to scrap a major defense pact with the US while cozying up to China. and develop Russia. .

When President Joe Biden first met with Marcos Jr. in New York in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, he emphasized the depth of US relations with the Philippines despite some headwinds.

“We’ve gone through some tough times, but the reality is that it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective. I hope you feel the same way,” Biden said. Marcos Jr. told him: “We are your partners. We are your partners. We are your friends.”

Romualdez said the rapprochement came at a critical time when the US needed to create a deterrent presence amid growing security threats in the region.

Philippine Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Bartholomew Bacarro said last week that the U.S. wants to build military facilities in five other areas in the northern Philippines under a 2014 defense cooperation agreement that allows U.S. forces to have warehouses and living quarters inside the Philippines. make temporary. military camps.

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The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign military bases, but at least two defense treaties allow U.S. forces to travel with their aircraft and naval vessels for joint military exercises, combat training and disaster response preparedness.

The northern Philippines is strategically located on a strait with Taiwan and could serve as an important outpost if tensions between China and the self-governing island worsen.

Harris held a brief conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday as he entered a closed APEC meeting. When asked on Sunday if they were discussing Taiwan or North Korea, he reiterated that they had talked about “maintaining the lines of communication.”

While aiming to deepen ties, the Biden administration will have to deal 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 amid human rights atrocities. and robbery.

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

Given the Biden administration’s high-profile advocacy of democracy and human rights, officials said human rights were at the top of the agenda in every meeting they had with Marcos Jr. and his officials.

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

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Associated Press writer Krutika Pati contributed from Bangkok.

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