Harris: US will support Philippines if attacked in South China Sea

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During her first official visit to Manila, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris promised Monday that Washington would invoke a decades-old mutual defense treaty should Philippine forces in the disputed South China Sea come under attack.

Harris made the pledge when the Philippine Navy accused the Chinese Coast Guard of “forcibly retrieving” space debris from a Chinese missile in disputed waters near the Spratly Islands.

“Especially with regard to the Philippines, I will say that we must always reiterate that we support you in defense of international rules and norms related to the South China Sea,” Harris said during a meeting with Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos. Jr. in the Presidential Palace of Malacañang here.

She said ties between Manila and Washington were based on mutual security concerns in the Indo-Pacific, including the South China Sea, a mineral-rich waterway that Beijing claims almost entirely on historical grounds. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have their own territorial claims.

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“An armed attack on the Philippines, armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense obligations. And that’s an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines,” Harris said.

She was referring to a 1951 bilateral treaty binding both countries to send troops and support each other’s military defenses in the event of an attack by an outside power.

Harris is the highest-ranking official in the Biden administration to visit the longtime US ally in Southeast Asia, where the United States and rival superpower China are vying for influence.

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Harris will visit Palawan on Tuesday, a Philippine island on the frontline of the maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing. She is expected to board one of the Philippine Coast Guard ships patrolling the South China Sea and give a speech after a briefing on maritime security operations.

Marcos, who was elected president in May, thanked Harris for “the very strong effort” and assured her of stronger ties between the two nations.

“The situation is changing quickly. We have to evolve to respond well to that situation, but — and that’s why it’s very important that we continue to make progress, that we continue to strengthen and that we — as we redefine those relationships,” Marcos said.

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Under his immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, Manila developed warmer ties with Beijing and drifted away from its traditional alliance with Washington.

“I have often said: I see no future for the Philippines without the United States. And that’s really — that’s really because of the very long relationship we’ve had with the US,” he said.

When the two met at the presidential palace in Manila, nearly 100 protesters took to the streets of the Philippine capital to oppose Harris’s visit and “decline the US’s efforts to establish more military facilities in the Philippines.” to point.

The police blocked them from continuing.

Police detain Filipino activists protesting in Manila against the visit of US Vice President Kamala Harris, November 21, 2022. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

Also on Monday, the Philippine Navy’s Western Command and the Chinese embassy issued conflicting statements about Sunday’s incident near Manila-occupied Pag-asa (Thitu), an island in the Spratly chain.

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel twice blocked a Philippine Navy boat before deploying a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB), Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said.

“Retrieved the… RHIB by force [the] floating object by cutting the towline attached to the [Philippine Navy] dinghy,” Carlos said in a statement, adding that the debris was towed back to the China Coast Guard vessel.

“The [Philippine] team decided to return to the island of Pag-asa,” said Carlos.

Not a single Filipino sailor was injured in the incident.

Carlos said the Navy reported the incident to the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea “for appropriate action.”

The West Philippine Sea is how Filipinos refer to areas claimed by Manila in the South China Sea.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it is “aware of the incident and awaits the detailed reports from maritime law enforcement agencies”.

The Chinese embassy, ​​meanwhile, disputed Carlos’ statement.

“Relevant reports are not in accordance with the facts,” the embassy said in a statement.

It said China’s coast guard found the wreckage of a recently launched missile around 8 a.m. on Sunday.

“Before the Chinese Coast Guard found the said floating object, there were personnel from the Philippine Navy [had] already picked up and towed. After friendly consultations, the Philippine side returned the floating object to the Chinese side on site,” the embassy said.

“The Chinese side expressed its gratitude to the Philippine side. There was no supposedly blocking the course of a Philippine Navy boat and forcibly retrieving the object on the spot.”

Marcos and Harris met days after the Philippine leader discussed maritime disputes with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week at a meeting in Bangkok, their first face-to-face meeting.

The Philippine and Chinese presidents stressed the need to finalize negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea to “help manage disparities and regional tensions,” according to the DFA.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.