US VP Harris visits Philippine isle on edge of the South China Sea

US Vice-President Kamala Harris leaves Puerto Princesa port in the Philippines,
en route to Yokota Air Base in Japan in this Nov. 22 photo. — HAIYUN JIANG/POOL VIA REUTERS

US Vice-President Kamala Harris on Tuesday visited the Philippine island of Palawan in the South China Sea as part of a three-day trip to an Asian ally that is central to America’s bid to counter China’s increasingly assertive stance in the region.

China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain massive oil and gas deposits and through which billions of dollars in trade passes each year.

Ms. Harris on Monday pledged the US would defend the Philippines if it came under attack in the waterway, reaffirming Washington’s unwavering commitment to its former colony.

Her visit to the Philippines sends a strong message to China that Washington will stand by its defense commitments to Manila, Chester B. Cabalza, president and founder of the International Development and Security Cooperation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“Both the US and Philippines have realized that they need each other amidst China’s economic and military rise,” he said. “And this alliance will remain amid China’s aggression in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.”

Ms. Harris’ comments followed a meeting on Monday with President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., who welcomed Ms. Harris for the first time at the Philippine presidential palace in Manila.

Mr. Marcos said the two nations’ strong ties had become even more important, given what he called upheavals in the region.

He said her visit to the Philippines is a “very strong symbol” that the relationship of the Philippines with its former colonizer “remains strong.”

Mr. Marcos also said Philippine relations with the United States had gone through different phases and has been strengthened in every way.

The Philippines signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US, the country’s key western ally, under the late President Benigno S.C. Aquino III.

His successor Rodrigo R. Duterte had threatened to scrap a visiting forces agreement with the US after the US Embassy canceled the visa of his ally Senator Ronald M. de la Rosa, his former police chief who led his deadly war on drugs.

Ms. Harris’ visit to the Philippines, the highest-level trip to the Philippines by a Biden administration official, is seen as part of Washington’s effort to revive ties with Manila, which moved closer to China under ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

“We stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea,” Ms. Harris told Mr. Marcos.

A 2016 ruling by an arbitration tribunal in the Hague said Beijing’s South China Sea claims had no legal basis, delivering a victory for Manila.

The Philippines has been unable to enforce the ruling and has since filed hundreds of protests over what it calls encroachment and harassment by China’s coast guard and its vast fishing fleet.

While in Palawan, Ms. Harris was expected to reaffirm Washington’s support for the 2016 tribunal ruling, a US official said.

Palawan is about 320 kilometers (200 miles) from the Spratly islands, where China has dredged the sea floor to build harbors and airstrips. Parts of the archipelago are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The vice president was set to visit a fishing village and tour a Philippine coast guard vessel during her trip, said a US official, on condition of anonymity.

The visit comes with US-Sino tensions high, particularly over Taiwan, the democratically governed island China has long vowed to bring under its control.

“We are not against the US interaction with regional countries,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning when asked to comment on Ms. Harris’ visit to Palawan. “But it should be good for regional peace and stability and not damaging to other countries’ interests.”

Illustrating tensions in the area, China denied on Monday that one of its coastguard ships used force to retrieve a piece of a rocket floating in the ocean that was being towed by a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea.

A Philippine military commander said the Chinese coastguard ship had “forcefully retrieved” the object by cutting a line attaching it to a Philippine boat.

Dozens of protesters rallied in Manila on Monday against the visit by Ms. Harris, saying they did not want the Philippines to be caught between US and Chinese rivalry.

The US and Philippines have moved ahead with the EDCA, dating from the Obama administration, though it languished under Mr. Duterte.

The military pact allows the United States to maintain a military presence, but not a permanent one, through the rotation of ships and aircraft for humanitarian and maritime security operations at mutually agreed Philippine bases.

Ms. Harris also said the United States stood by the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea.

The US seeks to pursue its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, which was signed in 2014 and builds on the Mutual Defense Treaty and 1999 visiting forces agreement, according to a fact sheet e-mailed by the US Embassy in Manila on Monday. It was also posted on the White House website.

US and Philippine forces have also used EDCA sites during Kamandag and Balikatan military exercises.

The US has allotted more than $82 million toward EDCA implementation at five existing locations in the Philippines, according to the statement.

New EDCA locations have also been identified to enable the US and Philippines to continue to work together to meet the objectives of the military pact. — Reuters with KATA