US VP Harris visit a show of support to PHL on South China Sea

US Vice President Kamala Harris speaking at a forum in October. — VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS/TWITTER

UNITED States Vice-President Kamala D. Harris’ visit to the Philippines next week will be a reaffirmation of support to the southeast Asian country and   maintaining maritime security in the disputed South China Sea, according to a transcript of a background press call posted by the White House on its website on Wednesday.  

“This visit demonstrates the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to stand with our Philippine ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea, supporting maritime livelihoods, and countering illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing,” according to a US senior administration official.   

Ms. Harris will be flying to Manila on Sunday and is scheduled to meet with President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. and Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio.   

The US vice president will also go to the province of Palawan, a group of islands facing the South China Sea.   

The Antonio Bautista Airbase in Puerto Princesa, capital of Palawan, is among the Philippine military facilities that US troops are allowed to use under the two countries’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014.   

Palawan covers the island town of Kalayaan Island, considered part of the Spratly Islands, where hundreds of Chinese militia vessels are scattered, and Reed Bank, locally known as the Recto Bank, which is believed to hold rich oil and gas deposits.  

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the Netherlands upheld in 2016 the Philippines’ rights to its exclusive economic zone, which covers the northeastern section of the Spratly, or the Kalayaan Island Group, and the Reed Bank. 

Beijing, however, maintains its claim to more than 80% of the disputed sea, including some territories close to Palawan, rejecting a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated its 1940s nine-dash line map.   

“China can take the message it wants,” the US senior administration official said after being asked how the trip might appear to Beijing.  

“The message to the region is that the United States is a member of the Indo-Pacific, we are engaged, we’re committed to the security of our allies in the region.”  

Ms. Harris’ meeting with Taiwanese Vice President William Lai Ching-te in January had angered China, with its Taiwan Affairs Office saying that the US should “take actual steps to put into effect its promises not to support Taiwan independence, and stop playing with fire on the Taiwan issue.” 

Despite this, the US high official continues to denounce China’s behavior in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, calling them “disturbing”. 

The official also noted that Ms. Harris felt “strongly about and has highlighted on a number of her trips throughout the Indo-Pacific the importance of freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce, and that is, obviously, highly relevant in the South China Sea and in and around Palawan as well”.  

During her stay in Puerto Princesa, the US vice president plans to engage with the Philippine Coast Guard and strengthen bilateral cooperation in maritime defense with new funding and initiatives.    

An opposition Philippine lawmaker, however, said continued military ties with the US only puts the Philippines at risk.   

“The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement is a foreign policy with onerous military agreements that has only led the Filipino people to be in danger of being involved in US wars,” ACT-Teachers Party-list Rep. France L. Castro said in a statement.   

“Most importantly, we lack a truly independent foreign policy as these onerous military agreements pervade.”   

Meanwhile, Ms. Harris will also be discussing the enhancement of economic partnership and investment ties with the Philippines.  

“We anticipate there will be deliverables and new initiatives on this front, as well, related to the digital economy and upskilling and accelerating the transition to clean energy,” the US senior administration official said. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan with a report from Matthew Carl L. Montecillo