A Philippine archipelago known for its tropical vacations will become the center of political attention this week, as Vice President Kamala Harris becomes the highest-ranking US official to visit its main island.
Palawan is also home to dive resorts A Philippine military base that Harris will visit on TuesdayChina is building military bases along the edge of the South China Sea, according to a senior administration official. – some of the islands claimed by the Philippines – are among the most outward signs of its ambitions in the Pacific.
Harris met with the President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos Jr On Monday, the partners are expected to discuss 21 new US-funded projects, including several defense bases around the Philippines that have yet to be disclosed — a sign that Washington is building closer ties with Manila.
The plans 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 security ties run even deeper.
The country was home to the US military’s two 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 is in place, which allows both sides to defend each other in case of attack by a third party.
Harris spoke to reporters Monday It reaffirmed Washington’s “unwavering” commitment to the accord“An armed attack on civilian vessels or aircraft of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the South China Sea would trigger U.S. mutual defense obligations.”
Sitting next to Harris, Marcos Jr. told reporters: “I’ve said many times, I don’t see a future for the Philippines that doesn’t include the United States, which comes from a very long relationship with the United States.”
Relations between the two countries broke down under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. During his six-year rule he sought closer ties with China.
Gregory Boling, a maritime security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US and the Philippines are moving on from those “difficult years”.
Boling said Harris’ visit sends strong support to the Philippines without threatening Beijing, as Harris will visit Palawan, which is near the South China Sea but not one of the contested islands.
“The benefit the United States sees in the Philippines in sending a message that ‘we stand together’ in the South China Sea far outweighs any casual frustration it might cause in Beijing,” Bolling said.
Balavan It is famous as a scuba diving and island-hopping destination, but it also houses the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, which is the headquarters of the Philippine military command responsible for protecting and patrolling its waters around the Spratly Islands.
The Spratly Islands lie at the southern end of the 1.3 million square mile waterway — all of which China claims as its sovereign territory based on interpretation of historical maps.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the Philippines occupies nine features of the Spratly chain and China occupies seven features. But Beijing, which calls the island chain the Nanshas, has built and strengthened much of its claim to the chain. Construction of military bases in places Subi Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef etc.
In contrast, only one of the Philippines-controlled features has a runway, the reef.
Other neighboring countries around the resource-rich waterway also claim parts of the region, including Vietnam. TaiwanBrunei and Malaysia.
In 2016, a tribunal at The Hague ruled in favor In the maritime dispute with the Philippines, China has no legal basis to claim historical rights to much of the South China Sea.
Despite the ruling, Duterte has sought and made plans to build closer ties with Beijing To cooperate in oil and gas exploration in the South China SeaThe move divides the Philippines over the legality of enforcing China’s ambitions in the disputed territory.
However, the exploration contracts were formally terminated in June 2022 due to constitutional challenges. and concerns about Philippine sovereignty, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. said before stepping down under Duterte.
Since taking office in June, Marcos Jr. has sought to restore ties with the United States and resume harmonious communications with China on economic and security issues.
On the sidelines of last Thursday’s APEC meeting, both Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping said maritime issues “do not define the totality of Philippines-China relations,” according to a Philippine spokesman.
“Our foreign policy refuses to fall into the trap of a Cold War mentality. Ours is guided by an independent foreign policy, our national interest and commitment to peace,” Marcos Jr. said.
As a security ally for Washington and a rival claimant to Beijing’s broader territorial claims over the South China Sea, the Philippines is crucial to both Washington’s strategy in the region and China’s geopolitical rise.
Rommel Banlaoy, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, said Marcos Jr.’s big task was to strengthen and modernize the country’s defense system with the help of the United States. Trading partner.
“Philippines President Marcos appears to be open to the idea of continuing practical cooperation in the South China Sea, while not giving up on its longstanding position when it comes to regional issues in the South China Sea,” Panloy said.
During his trip to the Philippines, Harris is expected to make several announcements, including closer US cooperation with Manila on clean energy, cyber security, communications and agriculture.
The deals show America’s intent in the Pacific region, but a South China Sea expert said Harris’ visit to the military base risks aggravating Beijing to potential harm in the Philippines.
Anna Malindok-Uy, vice president of the Asian Century Philippine Institute for Strategic Studies (ACPSSI), considered the visit “a very provocative, inciting and irritating act.”
“This will put my country, the Philippines, in a dangerous and dire situation for Beijing,” she said.
“I don’t see this as something beneficial for my country. It’s tantamount to pandering to Beijing at the expense of my country, and I don’t think that’s something enlightened and nationalist Filipinos would be happy about.