US Vice President Kamala Harris visited a Philippine island near waters claimed by China on Tuesday to show support for the longtime US ally and counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
Harris is the highest-ranking US official to visit the western island of Palawan, the closest Philippine landmass to the Spratly Archipelago in the hotly contested South China Sea.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea and has ignored a ruling by an international court that says its claims have no legal basis.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of it.
Harris met with fishermen in a coastal town and members of the Philippine Coast Guard.
In a speech, Harris said “international rules and norms” must be respected and the UN-backed court decision rejecting China’s claims to the South China Sea must be respected.
“The United States, and the international community in general, have a deep interest in the future of this region,” he said aboard a Philippine Coast Guard ship.
“As an ally, the United States stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea.”
Harris’ trip to Palawan comes a day after he held talks with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in Manila.
He reaffirmed the “unwavering” commitment of the United States to defend the Philippines if its ships or planes are attacked in the South China Sea.
Washington has a decades-long security alliance with the Philippines that includes a mutual defense treaty and a 2014 pact, known by the acronym EDCA, that allows the US military to store defense equipment and supplies at five Philippine bases.
It also allows US troops to rotate into those military bases.
EDCA stalled under former President Rodrigo Duterte, but the United States and the Philippines have expressed support for speeding up its implementation as China becomes increasingly assertive.
– Rebuilding relationships –
As regional tensions rise, fueled by China’s recent war games over Taiwan, Washington is seeking to repair ties with Manila, whose cooperation would be critical in the event of a conflict.
Relations between the two countries fractured under the fickle Duterte, who favored China over his country’s former colonial master.
Marcos has tried to strike a better balance between his neighboring superpowers, insisting that he will not allow China to trample on Manila’s maritime rights.
Harris’ visit conveyed a “stronger sense of commitment” to the Philippines’ position on maritime claims, but also underscored the need for continued implementation of EDCA, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
“The United States cannot adequately meet its obligations if it is forced to remain several thousand miles away in Japan or Guam,” he said.
Of all the South China Sea claimants, Beijing has pushed its stance the most aggressively in recent years.
Hundreds of Chinese coast guard vessels and maritime militias prowl the waters, swarm the reefs, harass and attack fishing and other vessels, and interfere with oil and gas exploration and scientific research.
Chinese state media Global Times on Tuesday accused Harris of “fanning the flames of the South China Sea issue.”
“The Philippines has the right to receive any foreign visitor. What we want to emphasize is that any bilateral exchange should not be at the expense of any third country’s interests, as well as regional peace and stability,” he said in an editorial.
On the eve of Harris’ visit to Palawan, a senior Philippine navy official accused the Chinese coast guard of “forcibly” seizing parts of a rocket that landed in the Spratlys.
Beijing, which has built militarized artificial islands in the archipelago, insisted the handover came after “friendly consultation.”
Tensions between Manila and Beijing flared last year after hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected at Whitsun Reef in the Spratlys.
Last November, Chinese coast guard ships fired water cannons at Philippine ships delivering supplies to Marines at Second Thomas Shoal in the same archipelago.