Assures PBBM of US commitment to uphold int’l rules under MDT
US Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday assured President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. that an attack on the Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke America’s “unwavering commitment” under the Mutual Defense Treaty.
“We stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea,” Harris told Marcos at the start of a visit aimed at countering China and rebuilding ties that were fractured over human rights abuses during the previous administration.
Harris is the highest-ranking US official to visit Manila since President Ferdinand Marcos took power in June, signaling a growing rapport between the longtime allies after years of frosty relations under his Beijing-friendly predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
She also met with her Philippine counterpart Sara Duterte, the daughter of the former leader whose deadly drug war sparked an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses.
In their meeting at the Palace, Marcos told Harris he did not “see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States.”
The United States has a long and complex relationship with the Philippines — and the Marcos family. Marcos’s dictator father ruled the former US colony for two decades with the support of Washington, which saw him as a Cold War ally.
Relations between the two countries soured under the foul-mouthed Duterte. In 2016, Duterte called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” over warnings he would be questioned by the then US president over his controversial drug war.
Washington is now seeking to bolster its security alliance with Manila under the new president.
That includes a Mutual Defense Treaty and a 2014 pact, known by the acronym EDCA, which allows for the US military to store defense equipment and supplies on five Philippine bases.
It also allows US troops to rotate through those military bases.
EDCA stalled under Duterte but the United States and the Philippines have expressed support for accelerating its implementation as China becomes increasingly assertive.
“We have identified new locations and have begun a process with the Philippines to finalize those,” a US official told reporters on condition of anonymity ahead of Harris’s meeting with Marcos.
On Tuesday, Harris will visit the island province of Palawan, which lies along hotly contested waters in the South China Sea.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of it.
Beijing has ignored a 2016 international tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines and its findings that China’s expansive claims have no legal basis.
Harris will meet members of the Philippine Coast Guard on board one of the country’s two biggest coast guard vessels and deliver a speech.
Harris’s trip to the Philippines is part of US efforts to remove any doubt about its commitment to the Asia-Pacific as China aggressively expands its regional influence.
It comes after Harris and US President Joe Biden met separately with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week.
Harris reinforced Biden’s message that “we must maintain open lines of communication to responsibly manage the competition between our countries” while speaking to Xi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok, a White House official said.
While her trip to Palawan would likely annoy China, the United States had more to gain from sending a message of reassurance to the Philippines, said Greg Poling, director of the US-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
“The Philippines will be much more reassured than China will be irritated,” Poling said.
Among the initiatives to be launched during Harris’s trip are negotiations for a civilian nuclear pact between the United States and the Philippines.
That could lead to the future sales of US nuclear reactors to the Philippines.
Marcos is a strong supporter of renewable energy and has insisted on the need to reconsider building nuclear power plants in the disaster-prone country.
However, before the United States can sell nuclear equipment to the Philippines, the two countries must sign a civilian nuclear pact known as a “123 agreement,” which is designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
President Marcos said he was delighted to welcome Harris to the Philippines, her first visit to the country, after a very brief conversation in Bangkok, Thailand, during their participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit.
“The relationship between our two countries is something that we both — both our countries have really come to depend upon. And the more the upheavals that we are seeing, especially in the region, this partnership becomes even more important,” the President told the US vice president.
“The situation is rapidly changing. We must evolve to be properly responsive to that situation,” he added.
Harris, who paid a courtesy call to President Marcos in Malacanang on Monday, said ties between the two countries had a long history.
“The relationship between the Philippines and the United States is a long and enduring one. It is one relationship that is strong for so many reasons. It is the long-standing relationship in terms of the people-to-people ties,” Harris told the President.
“The basis of our relationship is multifaceted. Our relationship is based on mutual commitment to the economic prosperity of the region and our respective nations,” she added.
She also cited the “thriving” Filipino community in the US in her meeting with President Marcos.
“In the United States, by last count, there are at least 4 million Filipino-Americans,” she said.
Harris arrived in the Philippines on Sunday, in what was the first visit in five years by a high-ranking US official since former President Donald Trump visited the country for the 2017 APEC Summit.
Speaker Martin Romualdez on Monday welcomed the visit of the US vice president, saying it would serve to bolster the long-standing security alliance and economic relations between the two countries.
Harris, accompanied by her husband, lawyer Doug Emhoff, touched down at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport around 6:55 pm Sunday on board Air Force 2 aircraft.
“The visit of US Vice President Kamala Harris is a welcome development as it would serve to reinforce the enduring alliance, partnership, and friendship between the Philippines and the United States,” Romualdez said.
Senators said Harris’ visit was “an important recognition of the Philippines.”
Senate Minority Leader Aquino Pimentel and Senator Christopher Go said the visit symbolizes that the US considers the Philippines a good partner and a close ally.
Pimentel said China should not complain or misinterpret or give other meaning to the visit of Harris since the Philippines has been accepting visitors within its territory.
But a legislator from Mindanao, Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, said the visit sends a clear signal to China that the US is supporting the Philippines in its territorial dispute with Beijing.
He said before Harris arrived in Manila, a US official told the press that the visit would show the Biden 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.”
That is consistent with the aspiration of President Marcos to push for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, which China should respect and abide by, Rodriguez said.