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

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The visit, which begins Sunday and will underscore U.S. commitment to defend treaty ally the Philippines, will fly to an island province facing the disputed South China Sea where Washington accuses China of bullying smaller claimants nation.

After attending the APEC summit in Thailand, Harris flew to Manila on Sunday night for a red carpet welcome. On Monday, she will meet with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for talks aimed at strengthening Washington’s oldest treaty alliance in Asia and strengthening economic ties, a senior U.S. administration official said in an online briefing ahead of the visit. By convention, the official did not be named.

Harris said her trip to Thailand was “pretty successful” as she reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the region during a roundtable discussion on climate change Sunday afternoon.

A panel of climate activists, civil society members and business leaders focused on the threats posed by clean energy and climate change to the Mekong River, which is used by more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia for food, water and transportation. Harris announced that the United States plans to provide up to $20 million in funding for clean energy in the region through the Japan-US Mekong Power Partnership.

Before taking off, she stopped at a local market, perusing the maze of shops, talking to shopkeepers and buying Thai green curry paste.

On Tuesday, she will fly to Palawan province on the coast of the South China Sea to meet fishermen, villagers, officials and the coast guard. Once there, she will be the highest-ranking U.S. leader to visit the border island, which is at the forefront of a long-running territorial dispute between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The Philippine Coast Guard plans to welcome Harris aboard one of its largest patrol ships, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, where she will speak in Palawan, according to coast guard spokesman Brigadier General Armand Barilo.

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Harris will stress the importance of international law, unimpeded commerce and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the U.S. official said.

Responding to a question, the official added that China could view the visit as it wished, but the message from Washington was that as a member of the Indo-Pacific region, the United States was engaged and committed to the security of its allies in the region.

Jose Manuel Romualdes, the Philippine ambassador to Washington, said Harris’ trip to Palawan showed the level of U.S. support for the ally and concerns about China’s actions in the disputed waters.

“It’s clear that the message they’re trying to send to the Chinese is, ‘We stand by our allies, like the Philippines, on these disputed islands,'” Romualdez told The Associated Press. “This visit is an important step in showing how serious the United States is now about this situation.”

Washington and Beijing have long clashed over the disputed waters. While the United States has no claim to the strategic waterway, through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes each year, the United States says freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea is in its national interest.

China objects to U.S. naval and air force patrolling the busy waterway, which Beijing claims almost entirely. It has warned Washington not to interfere in what it says is a purely territorial conflict in Asia – which has become a delicate front in U.S.-China rivalry in the region and has long been feared a potential flashpoint.

In July, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on China to abide by a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea, warning that Washington had obligations if Philippine troops, ships or aircraft were sanctioned Protect treaty ally the Philippines. Attacks in disputed waters.

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China rejected a 2016 ruling by a tribunal established 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 disputed waters. Beijing did not participate in the arbitration, rejecting its sham award and continuing to flout it.

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

U.S. relations with the Philippines entered a difficult period under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who threatened to sever ties with Washington and expel visiting U.S. troops and had tried to scrap an agreement with the U.S. Important defense agreements, while establishing friendly relations with China and Russia.

In his first meeting with Marcos Jr. in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, President Joe Biden underlined the importance the United States places on its relationship with the Philippines, despite some headwinds.

“We’ve been through some tough times, but the truth is, from our perspective, this is a vital relationship. I hope you feel the same way,” Biden said at the time. Marcos Jr. told him, “We’re your partners. We’re your allies. We’re your friends.”

Romualdez said the settlement comes at a critical time when the United States needs to build a deterrent force amid growing security threats in the region.

Philippine Military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Bacalome Baccaro 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 build warehouses and Barracks in the Temporary Residential Area.

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The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign military bases, but at least two defense agreements allow U.S. forces to visit the Philippines temporarily with their aircraft and naval ships for joint military exercises, combat training and in response to natural disasters.

The strategic location of the northern Philippines across the Taiwan Strait could serve as an important outpost should tensions between China and the self-governing island worsen.

On Saturday, Harris spoke briefly with Chinese President Xi Jinping while attending a closed-door APEC meeting. Asked on Sunday whether they had discussed Taiwan or North Korea, she reiterated that they talked about “keeping lines of communication open.”

While deepening ties, the Biden administration has had to grapple with concerns from human rights groups about Marcos Jr. The Filipino leader staunchly defends the legacy of his father, a dictator who was toppled and looted over human rights atrocities during the 1986 pro-democracy uprising.

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

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

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Associated Press Writer Krutika Pathi in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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