In historic visit, Harris reiterates US support for Philippines in sea dispute
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris hit back at China on Tuesday over its coercive tactics in the South China Sea as she became the highest-ranking American official to visit Palawan, a remote Philippine island on the frontline of a territorial dispute.
Her trip coincided with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. announcing that his government would file a diplomatic note against Beijing over alleged harassment by the China Coast Guard during the weekend retrieval of space debris from a Chinese rocket in contested waters.
“The United States and the broader international community have a profound stake in the future of this region. America’s prosperity relies on the billions of dollars [of commerce] that flow through these waters every day, and we are proud to work with you in your mission,” Harris said during a speech on the deck of the BRP Teresa Magbanua, a Philippine Coast Guard ship that patrols the waterway.
“As an ally, the United States stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea,” she said in a report by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
After landing in Palawan, Harris and her small entourage traveled first to Tagburos village, a fishing community where residents are continually threatened by developments in the South China Sea.
The Philippines won an arbitral award against China in 2016 that basically invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims to the maritime region potentially rich in minerals.
Tensions have grown between Beijing and Manila in recent years, with Filipino officials taking China to task over the alleged aggressive behavior of its coast guard ships and fishing boats in Philippine-claimed waters. Other claimants to territories and waters in the sea are Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
“I am here in Palawan to underscore the importance of our partnership in order to create economic opportunities, protect coastal ecosystems, maintain peace and stability, and uphold international rules and norms here in the South China Sea and around the world,” Harris said in her speech after a closed-door briefing by Philippine Coast Guard officials.
“To uphold international rules and norms is to support the lives and livelihoods of people throughout the region.”
When foreign vessels enter Philippine waters and illegally raid the fishing stocks and harass and intimidate local fishermen, “the vitality of communities like this is at risk,” she stressed.
Harris said the U.S. government was also helping the Philippines address “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing” by conducting training with the local coast guard.
“In addition, we have stepped up efforts to provide countries in the region with a wider and more accurate picture of their territorial waters,” the U.S. vice president said, noting that the United States, Japan, Australia and India had in May launched a partnership for “domain awareness.”
The project uses “space-based platforms to deliver a common operating picture of Indo-Pacific waterways” and is ultimately aimed at protecting fishing areas, as well as detecting and combating illegal fishing, Harris said.
“We will continue to rally our allies and partners against unlawful and irresponsible behavior. When the international rules-based order is threatened somewhere, it is threatened everywhere,” she said.
Harris and her entourage later boarded Air Force Two for the homeward flight to Washington.
In Manila, President Marcos said the Philippine government would send a note verbale to China in protest over the alleged forcible seizure of the space debris by Chinese coast guard personnel during an incident involving the Philippine Navy in waters in the Spratly Islands on Sunday.
“[I ] think that’s what we need to do because when it was first reported to me by the chief of staff, I asked him to immediately call the military attaché in the Chinese embassy and to get a report,” Marcos told reporters Tuesday.
He noted that the Navy had used the word “forcibly” in a report that contradicted a Chinese embassy statement, which described the encounter at sea near the Philippine-claimed island of Pag-asa (Thitu) and retrieval of the space debris as “friendly.”
“So we have to resolve this issue. Of course, I have complete trust in our Navy and if this is what they say happened, I can only believe that that is what happened,” Marcos said.
“These are the things that we need to work out because with the way that the region, our region, the Asia-Pacific, is heating up, one small mistake can lead to a larger conflagration,” the Philippine president warned.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Department of National Defense said it was awaiting additional reports about alleged incidents tied to the retrieval of the rocket debris.
“We stand by the accounts of our personnel in the area that, contrary to the narrative of the Chinese side, the debris being towed by a Philippine vessel to Naval Station Emilio Liwanag for inspection was rudely taken by personnel from CCGV5203,” Department Undersecretary Jose C. Faustino Jr. said in a statement Tuesday, referring to a China Coast Guard ship.
“Philippine authorities are also investigating the reported explosions near Pag-asa Island after the incident involving the floating debris. The situation is still developing; thus, we cannot provide additional details at this time,” he added.
Caught between rival superpowers
Harris’ three-day trip to Manila and Palawan was seen as an effort by the Biden administration to reset America’s longtime relationship and alliance with the Philippines. These had cooled under Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who pursued closer bilateral ties with Beijing.
Marcos, who took office in June, has signaled that he is open to repairing frazzled bilateral and military ties with the U.S. amid a Sino-American rivalry in Southeast Asia.
“[B]eing at the entrance of maritime Southeast Asia and located at the geographic heart of the Indo-Pacific, the Philippines has clearly established its geopolitical value in the region. What makes the Philippines an even more important player is that it does not only share a historic treaty alliance with the U.S., but also continues to forge closer political and economic relations with China,” Don McLain Gill, a geopolitical analyst who focuses on the region, told BenarNews.
“Therefore, the Southeast Asian nation serves as a crucial element in the changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific.”
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news news service.