WASHINGTON/MANILA, Nov 20 (Reuters) – US Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Philippines this week in the Biden administration’s latest high-level engagement with America’s oldest Asian ally and increasingly important strategic partner as tensions rise with China over Taiwan.
Here are some of the main issues with his visit:
Why is the Philippines so important to the United States?
The Philippines is a former US colony and became a US treaty ally in 1951, five years after independence. During the Cold War, it hosted some of America’s largest overseas bases, essential facilities for the US wars in Korea and Vietnam. Philippine nationalism forced Washington to free the people in the 1990s, but in recent years the allies have cooperated on counter-terrorism and in response to rising Chinese military pressure in the South China Sea, where the Philippines has rival claims.
Today, due to its geography, the Philippines is at the center of US plans to deter and respond to Chinese attacks on Taiwan, the self-administered island China claims as its own.
Tensions in Taiwan are expected to surface when Harris meets President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Monday, Manila’s Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez told Reuters.
Harris also plans to make a very symbolic stop in the Philippine islands of Palawan in the South China Sea to show US support for its allies.
How does that country fit into US planning for a possible conflict in Taiwan?
Of the five US treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific – Australia, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand – the Philippines is closest to Taiwan, the northernmost landmass of Luzon being just 200 km (120 miles) away.
Experts such as Randall Schriver, who served in the Trump administration as the top Pentagon official for East Asia, said Luzon is of great interest to the US Army, in particular, as a potential location for rockets, missiles and artillery systems that can be used. to fight the amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
He said the political environment for greater military access appears to have improved under Marcos after six years of strained relations with President Rodrigo Duterte, who sought closer ties with China.
Washington has carefully courted Marcos and Harris’ visit follows two meetings between President Joe Biden and Marcos and a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Manila in August.
How can Washington and Manila improve security cooperation?
The two sides have moved forward with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that dates back to the Obama presidency and that has been in place under Duterte. EDCA allows the US access to Philippine military bases for joint exercises, pre-positioning of equipment and building facilities such as runways, fuel storage and military housing, but not permanent presence.
The extent to which the Philippines will allow its territory to be used to defend Taiwan remains unclear. Romualdez, the ambassador to Washington and a relative of Marcos, said in September that he would allow US troops to use the base in the event of a Taiwan conflict only “if it is important to us, for our own security.”
The United States has proposed adding five EDCA sites to the current five. Southeast Asia expert Gregory Poling at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said Harris’ trip could herald an agreement.
How does the Taiwan conflict affect the Philippines?
Poling believes it will be very difficult for the Philippines to remain neutral in the Taiwan conflict given its proximity to the island and its treaty obligations to the United States. It would be the most likely destination for Taiwanese refugees and about 150,000 Filipinos living on the island would be threatened by a Chinese attack.
“They have a commitment to America in that alliance,” Poling said. “So if they want American support in the South China Sea, the Americans will expect the Philippines to support Taiwan.”
What will the Philippines expect?
Schriver said that with the Pentagon’s concern about a possible attack on Taiwan, Washington wants assurances about access in the next year or two, although the open plan for a Taiwan contingency is very sensitive for Manila.
Poling said providing enough funding for Manila to help modernize its long-neglected armed forces is key. Washington recently announced $100 million in foreign military financing and $66.5 million for EDCA sites, but the amount is small compared to what Washington is sending to the Middle East and Ukraine.
“The second request of the Philippines is a clear commitment to defend Filipinos in the South China Sea,” Poling said. “They have that rhetoric, but the question for both parties is, do they have a function? If there is a Chinese attack on a Philippine base in the South China Sea tomorrow, can America do anything about it? And it is far less clear, which is another reason for EDCA very important.”
Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Karen Lema; Editing by Don Durfee and Grant McCool
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