A Philippine archipelago known for tropical vacations will become the center of political attention this week when Vice President Kamala Harris becomes the highest-ranking US official to visit its main island.
Palawan is home to dive resorts as well as a Philippine military base where Harris will visit on Tuesday, according to a senior administration official, putting them on the edge of the South China Sea, where China is building military bases. – some on islands claimed by the Philippines – in one of the most outward signs of its ambitions in the Pacific.
Harris met Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Monday, with partners expected to discuss 21 new projects funded by the United States, with yet to be disclosed more defense sites in locations around the Philippines is a signal to Beijing that Washington is toughening ties with Manila.
The projects are part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries, which allows US troops to use agreed locations in the Philippines for security exercises and joint military training, the White House said in a statement.
But US-Philippine defense ties run even deeper.
The country used to be 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 force, stipulating that both sides help defend each other if either is attacked by a third party.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Harris reaffirmed Washington’s “unwavering” commitment to the treaty. “We must always reiterate that we stand with you in defense of the rules and norms (in the South China Sea),” Harris said.
Marcos Jr., sitting next to Harris, told reporters: “I’ve said many times, I don’t see a future for the Philippines that doesn’t include the United States, and that comes from a very long relationship with America.”
Relations between the two countries deteriorated under the leadership of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Who forged close ties with China during his six years in power.
Gregory Poling, a maritime security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US and the Philippines are moving on from those “tough years”.
Poling said Harris’ visit sends a strong message of support to the Philippines without necessarily threatening Beijing because Harris will visit Palawan, which is close to the South China Sea but not one of the disputed islands.
Poling said, “The benefits the US will see in the Philippines in sending a message of ‘standing together in the South China Sea’ will far outweigh any minor frustrations it may create in Beijing.”
Palawan Famous as a scuba diving and island-hopping getaway, it is also home to the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, which is in charge of patrolling and protecting its waters around the Spratly Islands, the center of the Philippine Military Command.
The Spratly Islands lie in the southern part of the 1.3 million square miles of waterway – almost all of which China claims as its sovereign territory based on its interpretation of historical maps.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the Philippines occupies nine facilities in the Spratly chain while China occupies seven. But Beijing, which calls the island chain tiny, has strengthened its claims to the chain, including building military bases at sites such as Subi Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef and Ferry Cross Reef.
In contrast, only one of the Philippine controlled facilities also has a runway, Thitu Reef.
Other neighbors around the resource-rich waterway also claim parts of the region, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
In 2016, a tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in the maritime dispute, concluding that China had no legal basis to claim historical rights over large parts of the South China Sea.
Despite ruling, Duterte attempted to forge closer ties with Beijing and planned to cooperate on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, a move that raised questions among Filipinos over the legality of enabling China’s ambitions in the disputed region. divided the
However, the exploration deals were formally terminated in June 2022 due to constitutional challenges and concerns about Philippine sovereignty, former foreign minister Teddy Locsin Jr. said before leaving office under Duterte.
Since taking office in June, Marcos Jr. has sought to re-establish ties with the US on both economic and security issues, and to resume cordial communications with China.
On the sidelines of the APEC meeting last Thursday, both Marcos Jr. and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed that maritime issues “do not define the totality of Philippines-China relations,” according to the Philippine press secretary.
“Our foreign policy refuses to fall into the trap of the Cold War mindset. We have an independent foreign policy that is guided by our national interest and commitment to peace,” Marcos Jr. said.
As Washington’s defense ally and competing claimant over Beijing’s wider territorial claims over the South China Sea, the Philippines is important to both Washington’s strategy in the region and China’s geopolitical rise.
Rommel Banloi, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, said the major task of Marcos Jr. is to strengthen and modernize the country’s defense system with the help of the US, while establishing cordial dialogue with China to strengthen economic ties with the largest . business partner.
“Philippine President Marcos is open to the idea of furthering pragmatic cooperation in the South China Sea, while not surrendering his long-standing position when it comes to territorial issues in the South China Sea,” Banlaoie said.
During her trip to the Philippines, Harris is expected to make several other announcements, including tighter US cooperation with Manila on clean energy, cyber security, communications and agriculture.
The deals show US intent in the Pacific, but a South China Sea expert said Harris’ visit to the military base was putting Beijing at risk of potentially losing the Philippines.
Anna Malindog-Uy, vice president of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), sees the visit as “quite a provocative, inciting and inflammatory action”.
“This will put my country, the Philippines, in a precarious and awkward position in the face of Beijing,” he said.
“I don’t see it as beneficial to my country. It’s like provoking Beijing at the expense of my country, and I don’t think it’s something enlightened and nationalist Filipinos will be happy about.