A Philippine archipelago known for its tropical holidays will become the focus of political attention this week when Vice President Kamala Harris becomes the most senior US official to visit its home island.
Palawan is home to diving resorts as well as a Philippine military base that Harris will visit on Tuesday, according to a senior administration official, which puts it 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 Pacific ambitions.
Harris met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Monday, and the partners are expected to discuss 21 new projects funded by the United States, including more defense outposts across the Philippines in yet-to-be-disclosed locations — a sign to Beijing that Washington is building ties. Closer with Manila.
The White House said in a statement that these projects are part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries, which allows US forces to use agreed-upon sites in the Philippines to conduct security exercises and joint military training.
But the defense ties between the United States and the Philippines run deeper than that.
The country used to be home to two of the largest US military installations overseas, namely Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, which were transferred to Philippine control in the 1990s. The Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951 is still in effect, and states that both sides will help defend each other if either is attacked by a third party.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Harris reaffirmed Washington’s “unwavering” commitment to the agreement, saying, “An armed attack on the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ public ships or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke the mutual defense commitments of the United States.”
Seated next to Harris, Marcus Jr. 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 came from the very long relationship with the United States.”
Relations between the two countries were strained under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Who sought closer relations with China during his six years in power.
The United States and the Philippines are moving on from those “tough years,” said Gregory Boling, a maritime security expert at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Boling said Harris’ visit sends a strong message of support to the Philippines without necessarily threatening Beijing because Harris will be visiting Palawan, which is close to the South China Sea but is not one of the disputed islands.
“The benefit to the United States in the Philippines of sending the message that ‘we stand together in the South China Sea’ far outweighs any modest frustration it might cause in Beijing,” Bowling said.
Palawan It’s best known as a diving and island-hopping haven, but it’s also home to Puerto Princesa’s Antonio Bautista Air Force Base, the Philippine military command post responsible for defending and patrolling its waters around the Spratly Islands.
The Spratly Islands lie in the southern part of the 1.3-million-square-mile waterway — and China claims them all as its sovereign territory based on its interpretation of historical maps.
According to the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, the Philippines has nine landmarks in the Spratly Series while China has seven. But Beijing, which calls the island chain Nanshas, has built and fortified many of its claims in the chain, including building military bases at places like Subi Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef.
In contrast, only one of the Philippine-controlled features has a runway, Thito Reef.
Parts of the region are also claimed by other neighbors surrounding the resource-rich waterway, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
In 2016, a court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute, concluding that China had no legal basis to claim historical rights to much of the South China Sea.
Despite the ruling, Duterte has attempted to forge closer ties with Beijing and laid out plans to cooperate on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, a move that has divided Filipinos over the legitimacy of enabling China’s ambitions in the disputed region.
However, the exploration deals were officially terminated in June 2022 due to constitutional challenges And concerns about the sovereignty of the Philippines, former Secretary of State Teddy Locsin Jr. said before leaving office under Duterte.
Since taking office in June, Marcos Jr. has sought to restore relations with the United States and resume friendly contacts with China, on economic and security issues.
On the sidelines of last Thursday’s APEC meeting, both Marcos Jr. and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed that maritime issues “do not define the entirety of Philippine-China relations,” according to the Philippine press secretary.
Our foreign policy refuses to fall into the trap of a Cold War mentality. “Our foreign policy is independent, guided by our national interest and commitment to peace,” said Marcos Jr.
As a defensive ally of Washington and a rival claimant to Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines is crucial to Washington’s strategy in the region and China’s geopolitical rise.
Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Society for Chinese Studies, said Marcos Jr.’s great mission is to strengthen and modernize the country’s defense system — with the help of the United States — while establishing friendly dialogue with China to strengthen economic relations with the largest country in the world. business partner.
“It appears that Philippine President Marcos is open to the idea of pursuing pragmatic cooperation in the South China Sea, while not compromising its longstanding position when it comes to territorial issues in the South China Sea,” Banlaoi said.
During her trip to the Philippines, Harris is expected to make a number of other announcements including US cooperation with Manila on clean energy, cybersecurity, telecommunications and agriculture.
The deals show US intent in the Pacific region, but a South China Sea expert said Harris’ trip to the military base threatens to worsen Beijing’s case at potential Philippine expense.
Anna Malindog-Oye, vice president of the Philippines Strategic Studies Institute for the Asian Century (ACPSSI), calls the visit “an act of provocation, rabble-rousing, and incitement.”
“It will put my country, the Philippines, in a precarious and unfavorable position with regard to Beijing,” She said.
I don’t think this is useful for my country. It’s akin to provoking Beijing at the expense of my country, and I don’t think that’s something enlightened and nationalist Filipinos would be happy.”