New Delhi: United States Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday paid a visit to a Philippine island near territorial waters claimed by China to display support for the long-time US ally and counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
Harris is the highest-ranking US official ever to visit the western island of Palawan, the closest Philippine landmass to the Spratly archipelago in the hotly contested South China Sea.
China has for some time claimed sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea region and has also ignored an international court ruling that its claims have no legal basis.
The archipelago of Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea.
On her visit to the island, the Vice-President of the United States will meet fisher folk and members of the Philippines Coast Guard. She will also “underscore the importance of international law, unimpeded lawful commerce, and freedom of navigation,” a US administrative official told news agencies before her visit.
Her trip to Palawan comes a day after she held talks with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in Manila. Harris reaffirmed the United States’ “unwavering” commitment to defending the Philippines if its vessels or aircraft were attacked in the South China Sea.
The United States has a long-standing security alliance with the Philippines that includes a mutual defence treaty and a 2014 agreement, known by the acronym EDCA, which allows for the US military to store defence equipment and supplies on five Philippine bases. The pact also allows US troops to rotate through those military bases.
With regional tensions climbing, fuelled by China’s recent moves around Taiwan, the US is seeking to repair bilateral ties with Manila, whose cooperation could be critical in the event of a conflict. Relations between the two countries fractured under the mercurial Duterte, who favoured China over his country’s former colonial rulers.
Marcos has sought to strike more of a balance between his superpower neighbours, insisting he will not let China trample on Manila’s maritime rights.
Harris’s visit conveyed a “stronger sense of commitment” to the Philippines’ position on maritime claims, and also emphasised the need for EDCA’s continued implementation, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
Among the nations that stake claim to the South China Sea, Beijing has in recent years pressed its stance the most. Chinese coast guard and military ships patrol the waters, swarming reefs, harassing and attacking fishing and other boats, and interfering in oil and gas exploration as well as scientific research going on in the region.
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