Harris visits Philippine­s amid tensions with China

VP’s message is that the US will support allies in the region

- By Jim Gomez

MANILA, Philippine­s — Vice President Kamala Harris will underscore America’s commitment to defending treaty ally the Philippine­s with a visit that started Sunday and involves flying to an island province facing the disputed South China Sea, where Washington has accused China of bullying smaller claimant nations.

After attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperatio­n summit in Thailand, Harris flew Sunday night to a red-carpet welcome in Manila. On Monday, she meets President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for talks aimed at reinforcin­g Washington’s oldest treaty alliance in Asia and strengthen­ing economic ties, said a senior U.S. administra­tion official, who was not identified according to practice, in an online briefing ahead of the visit.

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

The panel of climate activists, civil society members and business leaders focused on clean energy and the threat climate change is posing to the Mekong River, which more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia use for food, water and transport. Harris announced the U.S. plans to provide up to $20 million in funding for clean energy in the region via the Japan-U.S. Mekong Power Partnershi­p.

On Tuesday she’ll fly to Palawan province, which lies along the South China Sea. Once there, she’ll be the highest-ranking U.S. leader to visit the frontier island at the forefront of the long-seething territoria­l disputes involving China, the Philippine­s, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The Philippine coast guard is scheduled to welcome Harris on board one of its biggest patrol ships, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, in Palawan, where she is scheduled to deliver a speech, according to coast guard spokespers­on Commodore Armand Balilo.

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

China can view the visit the way it wants, the official added in response to a question, but Washington’s message is that the U.S., as a member of the Indo-Pacific, is engaged and committed to the security of its allies in the region.

Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to the U.S., said Harris’ visit to Palawan shows the level of America’s support to an ally and concern over China’s actions in the disputed sea.

“That’s as obvious as you can get, that the message they’re trying to impart to the Chinese is that ‘we support our allies like the Philippine­s on these disputed islands,’ ” Romualdez said. “This visit is a significan­t step in showing how serious the United States views this situation now.”

Washington and Beijing have long been on a collision course in the contested waters. While the U.S. lays no claims to the strategic waterway, where an estimated $5 trillion in global trade transits each year, it has said that 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 in the busy waterway, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety. It has warned Washington not to meddle in what it says is a purely Asian territoria­l conflict — which has become a delicate front-line in the U.S.-China rivalry in the region and has long been feared as a potential flashpoint.

In July, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on China to comply with a 2016 arbitratio­n ruling that invalidate­d Beijing’s vast territoria­l claims in the South China Sea and warned that Washington is obligated to defend treaty ally Philippine­s if its forces, vessels or aircraft come under attack in the disputed waters.

China has rejected the 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, rejected its ruling as a sham and continues to defy it.

Harris’ visit is the latest sign of the growing rapport between Washington and Manila under Marcos, who took office in June after a landslide electoral victory. America’s relations with the Philippine­s entered a difficult period under Marcos’ predecesso­r, Rodrigo Duterte, who threatened to sever ties with Washington.

 ?? HAIYUN JIANG/POOL PHOTO ?? Vice President Kamala Harris at a forum with civil society members on climate and clean energy Sunday at the U.S. Chief of Missions Residence in Bangkok.
HAIYUN JIANG/POOL PHOTO Vice President Kamala Harris at a forum with civil society members on climate and clean energy Sunday at the U.S. Chief of Missions Residence in Bangkok.

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