During a historic visit, Harris reiterates US support for the Philippines in naval disputes

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US Vice President Kamala Harris hit back at China on Tuesday over its coercive tactics in the South China Sea when she became the top US official to visit Palawan, a remote Philippine island on the front lines of a territorial dispute.

Her trip coincided with the announcement of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. that his government would file a diplomatic note against Beijing for alleged harassment by the Chinese Coast Guard while retrieving space debris from a Chinese missile in disputed waters.

“The United States and the broader international community have a strong interest in the future of this region. America’s prosperity depends on billions of dollars [of commerce] that flow through these waters every day, and we are proud to partner with you in your mission,” Harris said while speaking on the deck of the BRP Teresa Magbanua, a Philippine Coast Guard vessel that patrols the waterway.

“As an ally, the United States stands alongside the Philippines against harassment and coercion in the South China Sea,” she said in a report by BenarNews, an online news service affiliated with the RFA.

After landing in Palawan, Harris and her small retinue first traveled to the village of Tagburos, a fishing community whose residents are under constant threat from developments in the South China Sea.

The Philippines won an arbitration ruling against China in 2016 that essentially invalidated Beijing’s extensive claims to the potentially mineral-rich maritime region.

Tensions between Beijing and Manila have increased in recent years, with Philippine officials holding China accountable for the allegedly aggressive behavior of its coastguard vessels and fishing boats in Philippine-claimed waters. Other claimants to areas and waters in the sea include Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

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“I am here in Palawan to underline the importance of our partnership to create economic opportunities, protect coastal ecosystems, maintain peace and stability, and uphold international rules and standards here in the South China Sea and around the world,” Harris said in a statement. her speech after a closed-door briefing by Philippine Coast Guard officials.

“Maintaining international rules and standards is supporting the lives and livelihoods of people across the region.”

When foreign ships enter Philippine waters and illegally plunder fish stocks and harass and intimidate local fishermen, “the vitality of such communities is at risk,” she stressed.

Harris said the US government was also helping the Philippines address “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing” by providing training with the local Coast Guard.

“In addition, we have stepped up our efforts to provide countries in the region with a broader and more accurate view of their territorial waters,” the US vice president said, noting that the United States, Japan, Australia and India signed a partnership for ” domain consciousness”.

The project uses “space-based platforms to provide a common operational view of the Indo-Pacific waterways” and ultimately aims to protect fishing grounds and detect and combat illegal fishing, Harris said.

“We will continue to support our allies and partners against illegal and irresponsible behavior. If the international rules-based order is threatened anywhere, it is threatened everywhere,” she said.

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Harris and her entourage later boarded Air Force Two for the return flight to Washington.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visits a fishing community in Tagburos village on Palawan Island, Nov. 22, 2022. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

In Manila, President Marcos said the Philippine government would send a note verbale to China in protest of the alleged forced seizure of space debris by China Coast Guard personnel during an incident involving the Philippine Navy in the waters off the Spratly Islands on Sunday.

“[I ] I think that’s what we should do because when it was first reported to me by the chief of staff, I asked him to immediately call the military attaché in the Chinese embassy and get a report,” Marcos told reporters on Tuesday. .

He noted that the Navy had used the word “by force” in a report that contradicted a statement from the Chinese embassy, ​​which said the meeting at sea off the Philippine-claimed island of Pag-asa (Thitu) and the retrieval of the space debris as “friendly”. .”

“So we need to solve this problem. Of course I have full confidence in our Navy and if this is what they say happened, I can only believe that’s what happened,” said Marcos.

“These are the things we need to fix because with the way the region, our region, Asia-Pacific, is warming, a small mistake can lead to a bigger conflagration,” the Philippine president warned.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Department of National Defense said it was awaiting additional reports on alleged incidents related to the collection of the missile debris.

“We stand by the statements of our personnel in the area that, contrary to the account of the Chinese side, the debris towed by a Philippine ship to the Emilio Liwanag Naval Station for inspection was rudely taken away by CCGV5203 personnel.” said Undersecretary Jose C. Faustino Jr. said in a statement Tuesday, referring to a Chinese Coast Guard ship.

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“Philippine authorities are also investigating reported explosions off Pag-asa Island after the floating debris incident. The situation is still evolving; therefore we cannot provide any additional details at this time,” he added.

Caught between rival superpowers

Harris’s three-day trip to Manila and Palawan was seen by the Biden administration as an attempt to restore America’s longstanding relationship and alliance with the Philippines. These had cooled under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who sought closer bilateral ties with Beijing.

Marcos, who took office in June, has indicated he is open to restoring weakened bilateral and military ties with the US amid a Sino-US rivalry in Southeast Asia.

“[B]At the entrance to Maritime Southeast Asia and located in the geographic heart of the Indo-Pacific, the Philippines has clearly established its geopolitical value in the region. What makes the Philippines an even more important player is that it not only shares a historic treaty alliance with the US, but also continues to forge closer political and economic relations with China,” said Don McLain Gill, a geopolitical analyst focusing on the region . , told BenarNews.

“Therefore, the Southeast Asian nation serves as a critical element in the changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific.”

BenarNews is an RFA affiliate news news service.

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