A Philippine archipelago known for tropical vacations will become the focus of political attention this week when Vice President Kamala Harris becomes the highest-ranking US official to visit its main island.
Palawan is home to diving resorts as well as a Philippine military base that Harris will visit on Tuesday, according to a senior administration official, putting it on the shores of the South China Sea, where China has built military bases. – some on islands claimed by the Philippines – in one of the most outward signs of its ambitions in the Pacific.
Harris met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Monday, with the partners expected to discuss 21 new US-funded projects, including more defense sites around the Philippines in yet-to-be-disclosed locations — an indication to Beijing that Washington is forging closer ties. with Manila.
The projects are part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries, which allows US troops to use agreed-upon locations in the Philippines for security exercises and joint military training, the White House said in a statement .
But US-Philippines defense ties run even deeper.
The country was home to two of the US military’s largest overseas installations, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, which were transferred to Philippine control in the 1990s. A mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 it remained in force, stipulating that both sides would help defend each other if one or the other were attacked by a third party.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Harris reaffirmed Washington’s “unwavering” commitment to the pact. “We will always reiterate that we stand with you in defense of the rules and norms, (in the South China Sea),” Harris said, adding that any attack on Philippine ships in the South China Sea invokes mutual defense commitments of the United States.
Sitting next to Harris, Marcos Jr. he told reporters, “I’ve said many times, I don’t see a future for the Philippines that doesn’t include the United States, and that comes from the very long relationship with the United States.”
Ties between the two countries had frayed under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who sought closer relations with China during his six years in power.
Gregory Poling, a maritime security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the United States and the Philippines are moving on from those “tough years.”
Poling said Harris’ visit sends a strong message of support to the Philippines without necessarily threatening Beijing, as Harris will visit Palawan, which is near the South China Sea but not one of the disputed islands.
“The benefit that the United States will see in the Philippines in sending a message that ‘We stand together in the South China Sea,’ far outweighs any modest frustration it will cause in Beijing,” Poling said.
Palawan it is renowned as a scuba diving and island escape, but it is also home to the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, the center of the Philippine military command in charge of defending and patrolling its waters around the Spratly Islands .
The Spratly Islands lie in the southern part of the 1.3 million square kilometer waterway – almost all of which China claims as its sovereign territory based on its interpretation of historical maps.
According to the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, the Philippines holds nine positions in the Spratly chain while China holds seven. But Beijing, which calls the island chain the Nanshas, has built and fortified many of its claims in the chain, including building military bases in places like Subi Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef. .
In contrast, only one of the features controlled by the Philippines even has a runway, Thitu Reef.
Other neighbors surrounding the resource-rich waterway also claim parts of the area, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
In 2016, a court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute, concluding that China has no legal basis to claim historical rights to most of the South China Sea.
Despite the ruling, Duterte has tried to forge closer ties with Beijing and has made plans to cooperate in oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, a move that has divided the Philippines over the legitimacy of allowing China’s ambitions in the disputed territory.
However, the exploration agreements were formally terminated in June 2022 due to constitutional challenges and concerns for Philippine sovereignty, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. he said before leaving his post under Duterte.
Since taking office in June, Marcos Jr. he sought to restore ties with the United States and restart friendly communications with China, both on economic and security issues.
On the sidelines of the APEC meeting last Thursday, Marcos Jr. and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed that maritime issues “do not define the entirety of Philippines-China relations,” according to the Philippine press secretary.
“Our foreign policy refuses to fall into the trap of a Cold War mentality. Ours is an independent foreign policy guided by our national interest and commitment to peace,” said Marcos Jr.
As a defense ally of Washington and a competing claimant over Beijing’s territorial claims over the South China Sea, the Philippines is critical to both Washington’s strategy in the region and the geopolitical rise of the China.
Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, said the great task of Marcos Jr. is to strengthen and modernize the country’s defense system – with the help of the United States – while establishing a friendly dialogue with China to strengthen economic ties with its largest. business partner.
“Philippine President Marcos seems open to the idea of pursuing pragmatic cooperation in the South China Sea, while not giving up his longstanding position when it comes to territorial issues in the South China Sea,” Banlaoi said. .
During his trip to the Philippines, Harris is expected to make a series of other announcements including closer US cooperation with Manila on clean energy, cybersecurity, communications and agriculture.
The deals show the intent of the United States in the Pacific region, but an expert on the South China Sea said that Harris’ trip to the military base risks aggravating Beijing to the potential damage of the Philippines.
Anna Malindog-Uy, vice president of the Asian Century Philippine Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), sees the visit as “quite a provocative, stirring and inflammatory act.”
“It will put my country, the Philippines, in a precarious and embarrassing situation vis-à-vis Beijing,” she said.
“I do not see this benefit for my country. It is similar to provoking Beijing at the expense of my country, and I do not think that this is something enlightened and the Filipino nationalists will be happy.”