A Philippine archipelago known for its 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 centers as well as a Philippine military base that Harris will visit on Tuesdayaccording to a senior administration official, placing it on the edge of the South China Sea, where China has built military bases – some on islands claimed by the Philippines – in one of the most apparent signs of its ambitions in the Pacific.
Harris meets with the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. On Monday, the partners are expected to discuss 21 new US-funded projects, including more defense sites around the Philippines in locations yet to be revealed – an indication for Beijing that Washington is forging closer ties with Manila.
The projects are part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries, which allows U.S. troops to use agreed locations in the Philippines for joint security drills and military training, the agency said. White House in a statement.
But the US-Philippine defense ties run even deeper.
The country was once home to two of the largest US military installations overseas, Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, which were transferred to Philippine control in the 1990s. A mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 remains in force, stipulating that both parties would help each other defend themselves if either were attacked by a third party.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Harris reaffirmed Washington’s “unwavering” commitment to the pactasserting that “an armed attack on public vessels or aircraft of the Philippine Armed Forces in the South China Sea would invoke the mutual defense commitments of the United States”.
Sitting next to Harris, Marcos 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 comes from the very long relationship with the United States.
Ties between the two countries had frayed under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has sought closer relations with China during his six years in power.
Gregory Poling, a maritime security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the United States and the Philippines were emerging from those “difficult years”.
Poling said Harris’ visit sends a strong message of support for the Philippines without necessarily threatening Beijing since Harris will be visiting Palawan, which is close to the South China Sea but not one of the disputed islands.
“The benefit the United States in the Philippines will see by sending a message that ‘we stand together in the South China Sea’ far outweighs any modest frustration it will cause Beijing,” Poling said.
palawan is renowned as a scuba diving and island hopping getaway, but it is also home to the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, the Philippine military command center 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 – almost all of which is claimed by China as its sovereign territory based on its interpretation of historical maps.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the Philippines occupies nine elements of the Spratly chain while China occupies seven. But Beijing, which calls the island chain the Nanshas, has built and reinforced much of its claims. in the chain, including build military bases on places such as Subi Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef.
In contrast, only one of the Philippine-controlled features even has a track, Thitu Reef.
Other neighbors surrounding the resource-rich waterway also lay claim to parts of the region, including Vietnam, TaiwanBrunei and Malaysia.
In 2016, a court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute, concluding that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to most of the South China Sea.
Despite the decision, Duterte tried to forge closer ties with Beijing and made plans to cooperate in oil and gas exploration in South China Seaa decision that has divided Filipinos over the legitimacy of allowing China’s ambitions in the disputed territory.
However, the exploration agreements were formally terminated in June 2022 due to constitutional challenges and concerns over Philippine sovereignty, former foreign minister Teddy Locsin Jr. said before leaving office under Duterte.
Since taking office in June, Marcos Jr. has sought to restore ties with the United States and reinvigorate friendly communications with China, both on economic and security issues.
On the sidelines of last Thursday’s APEC meeting, Marcos Jr. and Chinese leader Xi Jinping both agreed that maritime issues “do not define the entire Philippines-China relationship”, according to the Philippine press secretary.
“Our foreign policy refuses to fall into the trap of a Cold War mentality. Ours is an independent foreign policy guided by our national interest and our commitment to peace,” said Marcos Jr.
As Washington’s defense ally and competing claimant to Beijing’s vast territorial claims to the South China Sea, the Philippines is critical to both Washington’s strategy in the region and China’s geopolitical rise.
Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, said Marcos Jr.’s big task was to strengthen and modernize the country’s defense system – with the help of the United States – while establishing a friendly dialogue with China to strengthen economic ties with its biggest trading partner.
“Philippine President Marcos seems open to pursuing pragmatic cooperation in the South China Sea, without giving up his long-standing position on territorial issues in the South China Sea,” Banlaoi said.
During his trip to the Philippines, Harris is expected to make a number of other announcements, including closer U.S. cooperation with Manila on clean energy, cybersecurity, communications and agriculture.
The deals show U.S. intent in the Pacific region, but a South China Sea expert said Harris’ trip to the military base risks aggravating Beijing to the potential detriment of the Philippines.
Anna Malindog-Uy, vice president of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), calls the visit “quite a provocative, raging and incendiary act”.
“It will put my country, the Philippines, in a precarious and uncomfortable position vis-à-vis Beijing,” she says.
“I don’t see it as beneficial for my country. This is tantamount to provoking Beijing at my country’s expense, and I don’t think that’s something enlightened and Filipino nationalist rejoicing over.