The Philippine archipelago, known for its tropical getaways, will be in the political spotlight this week after Vice President Kamala Harris became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the main island.
Palawan, a diving spot and home to a Philippine military base that Harris will visit on Tuesday, puts her on the edge of the South China Sea, where China has been building military bases, according to a senior administration official – some on islands claimed by the Philippines – one of the most visible signs of its Pacific ambitions.
Harris with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. On Monday, the partners are expected to discuss 21 new U.S.-funded projects, including more defense sites around the Philippines in undisclosed locations — signaling to Beijing that Washington is building closer ties with Manila.
The projects are part of the two countries’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows U.S. forces to use agreed-upon locations in the Philippines for security exercises and joint military training, the White House said in a statement.
But the US-Philippines defense relationship goes deeper.
The country was once home to Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, two of the US military’s largest overseas bases, which were transferred to Philippine control in the 1990s. A mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 is still in force, stipulating that if one side is attacked by a third party, the two sides will help the other side defend.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Harris reiterated Washington’s “firm” commitment to the deal. “We must always reiterate that we stand with you in defending the rules and norms, (in the South China Sea),” Harris said, adding that any attack on a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea would trigger a U.S. mutual defense commitment.
Sitting next to Harris was Marcos Jr. “I’ve said many times, I don’t think the future of the Philippines doesn’t include the U.S., and that comes from a long-standing relationship with the U.S.,” he told reporters.
Relations between the two countries broke down under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, He has sought closer ties 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 U.S. and the Philippines were coming out of those “hard times.”
Poling said Harris’ visit sent a strong message of support to the Philippines, but not necessarily a threat to Beijing, because Harris will be visiting Palawan, which is close to the South China Sea but not one of the disputed islands .
“The benefit the U.S. sees in the Philippines, sending a ‘we stand together in the South China Sea’ message far outweighs any modest frustration it would cause Beijing,” Poling said.
Palawan Island Famous for scuba diving and island-hopping vacations, it’s also home to the Antonio Bautista Air Force Base in Puerto Princesa, the center of the Philippine military command that guards and patrols the waters around the Spratly Islands.
The Spratly Islands lie to the south of 1.3 million square miles of waterways — nearly all of which China claims as sovereign territory, according to interpretations of historical maps.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the Philippines occupies nine features in the Spratlys, while China occupies seven. But Beijing, which refers to the chain of islands as the Spratly Islands, has built and strengthened much of its sovereignty on the chain, including military bases at Subi Reef, Red Tide Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef.
In contrast, only one of the islands controlled by the Philippines even has a runway, Thitu Reef.
Other neighbors around the resource-rich waterway also claim parts of the region, 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 had no legal basis to claim historic rights to large parts of the South China Sea.
Despite the ruling, Duterte has sought to forge closer ties with Beijing and has drawn up plans to cooperate in oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, a move that has made Filipinos wary of China’s ambitions in the disputed territory The legitimacy of ambition is divided.
However, the exploration deal is officially terminated in June 2022 due to a constitutional challenge and concerns about Philippine sovereignty, former Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. Said before Duterte left office.
Since taking office in June, Marcos Jr. has sought to rekindle relations with the United States and restart friendly communication with China on economic and security issues.
On the sidelines of last Thursday’s APEC meeting, Philippine press secretary Marcos Jr. said he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that maritime issues “cannot define the whole of the Philippines-China relationship.”
“Our foreign policy refuses to fall into the trap of a Cold War mentality. Our foreign policy is an independent foreign policy guided by our national interest and our commitment to peace,” Marcos Jr. said.
As a defense ally of Washington and a rival claimant to Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines is central to both Washington’s strategy in the region and China’s geopolitical rise.
Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Association for Chinese Studies in the Philippines, said Marcos Jr.’s major task 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 China’s largest economy and trade. partner.
“Philippine President Marcos seems to be open to the idea of seeking pragmatic cooperation in the South China Sea, while not abandoning his long-standing position on territorial issues in the South China Sea,” Banlaoi said.
During her visit to the Philippines, Harris is expected to make a series of other announcements, including increased cooperation between the United States and Manila on clean energy, cybersecurity, communications and agriculture.
The deals show U.S. intentions in the Pacific, but a South China Sea expert said Harris’ trip to the military base could have a negative impact on the Philippines by angering Beijing.
Anna Malindog-Uy, vice president of the Asian Century Philippine Strategic Institute (ACPSSI), called the visit a “quite provocative, provocative and provocative act”.
“This will put my country, the Philippines, in an unstable and awkward position in the face of Beijing,” she says.
“I don’t think it’s good for my country. It’s akin to angering Beijing at the expense of my country, and I don’t think enlightened and nationalistic Filipinos will be happy about that.”