Kamala Harris' visit puts the Philippines at odds with China

AAmerican leaders made numerous visits to the Philippines, a longtime military ally in Southeast Asia. But Vice President Kamala Harris’ Tuesday stop in the country’s archipelago province of Palawan represents something new. She is the first US representative to go there, which observers say is more of a message to China than to the Philippines.

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Harris toured a Coast Guard ship and spoke with Philippine officials in Palawan to emphasize America’s values ​​and hopes for the region: “respect for sovereignty and international integrity, unimpeded lawful trade, peaceful resolution of disputes and freedom of navigation.”

The vice president’s visit, along with talks in Manila on Monday to increase joint defense projects, leaves the Philippines in a precarious position – straddling the line between the interests of its colonizer-turned-US ally and its biggest trading partner China. Across the region, countries have been placed in a similar predicament, increasingly forced to choose where they would prefer to stay above the fray in the US-China competition for global influence.

US Vice President Kamala Harris meets with Philippine President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. at the Malacañang Palace in Manila on November 21, 2022. (Haiyun Jiang—Pool/Getty Images)

US Vice President Kamala Harris meets with Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. at the Malacañang Palace in Manila on November 21, 2022.

Haiyun Jiang—Pool/Getty Images

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who was elected President of the Philippines in May, said in July that, like many of his regional counterparts, he would pursue a “friend of all, enemy of none” foreign policy. But that goal is becoming increasingly untenable as differences between the two world superpowers grow on issues affecting human rights, economic policy and the rule of law.

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It was no coincidence that Harris visited Palawan. It’s right off its west coast South China Sea: a waterway that has become a regional flashpoint after Beijing laid claim to almost all of it and surrounding islands, citing historical maps. China is not the only claimant – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have also staked claims to overlapping maritime territories. But China has stepped up its presence in recent years, building artificial islands out of unknown offshore reefs and sandbars and arming them with missile systems. A UN-backed tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, overturned most of China’s mass claims in 2016, but Beijing ignore the decree and continues to militarize the region.

Read more: Where exactly did China get the nine-dash line in the South China Sea?

Local tensions in the South China Sea eased somewhat after the Philippines filed a complaint against China in The Hague with former President Rodrigo Duterte did not comply with the court’s decision. Duterte was keen to sway the Philippines from its deference to the US. With Duterte unwilling to hold Beijing accountable to mend diplomatic relations, Chinese incursions into the disputed waterway have increased.

Since Marcos Jr. succeeded Duterte, he has sought to restore the Philippines’ relationship with the US, whose military is still actively contesting China’s claims in the South China Sea. At the same time, Marcos Jr. insists that Harris’ visit will not strain relations between Manila and Beijing. “I don’t think it will cause problems,” he told Filipino reporters last week. But Lucio Pitlo, a research fellow at the Manila-based think tank Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, says China will definitely be monitoring the visit and will “certainly express serious concerns about” the growing US military footprint in the country.

Restoration of relations with the United States

Several key treaties in recent decades form the foundation of the US-Philippines partnership. A 1951 mutual defense treaty states that both nations will support each other in the event of an external attack. This was reaffirmed by the 1998 Visit of Forces Agreement and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows the US military to access bases in the Southeast Asian country and store defense equipment there. The two armies also regularly conduct joint exercises.

By virtue of its geography, the Philippines is of strategic value to the US in its competition with China. Besides having the South China Sea to the west, the large island of Luzon, which contains the country’s capital Manila, is only 360 km south of Taiwan.

Read more: The US risks disaster if it does not clarify its strategy on Taiwan

Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the global policy think tank RAND Corporation, says the renewed US-Philippine alliance under Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has “real implications for China’s security in the South China Sea.”

Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Philippines would find it “very difficult to remain neutral” if a conflict were to arise in Taiwan and the U.S. intervene. About 150,000 Filipinos living in Taiwan will be at risk, and the Philippines may “deal with the refugee crisis along with other external factors,” he added.

In September an interview with Japanese outlet Nikkei Asia, Philippine envoy to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez – a cousin of Marcos Jr – said Manila would allow Washington to use its bases in the event of a conflict in Taiwan “if it is important to us, for our own security .” It’s a tonal shift from when Duterte, who wanted to expel US forces from the archipelago, was in charge. On a trip to Beijing in 2016, Duterte declared that it was “time to say goodbye to Washington.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang talk to each other during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on August 30, 2019. (How Hwee Young—Pool/Getty Images)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang talk to each other during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on August 30, 2019.

How Hwee Young—Pool/Getty Images

Read more: Beijing’s skillful diplomacy isolates the US in Asia

But while Marcos Jr. has taken a different approach than his predecessor, he is wary of alienating China as he pursues a re-establishment of ties with Washington. He met with China’s Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok, Thailand, last week shortly before Harris’ visit, promising improved relations between Manila and Beijing.

Marcos wants to avoid a repeat of the past. After a Philippine ship collided with Chinese boats in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in 2012, China imposed trade barriers on bananas from the Philippines. Banana exports to China have declined about 27% to 473,000 metric tons in 2012 from 650,000 tons the previous year. The fruit is one of the main agricultural exports of the country and its producers believe the dispute was guilty for their economic losses.

Treading a fine line with China

China’s foreign ministry issued a statement after the meeting in Bangkok last week, saying it should work together with the Philippines against “bullying” in the South China Sea – a concern for both Beijing and Washington blame the other to deal with their military movements in the region. Marcos Jr., for his part, clarified that his foreign policy doctrine has always been to engage with all parties, especially on the maritime dispute. “Let’s not let anyone dictate what we should do,” he told reporters last week.

At a briefing in Palawan, Harris reiterated America’s support for the 2016 Hague ruling on the South China Sea dispute, adding that the US “will continue to unite our allies and partners against illegal and irresponsible behavior” in the region. Washington also pledged to give Manila $7.5 million worth of aid to its maritime law enforcement agencies.

Beijing has yet to respond to Harris’s statement, though its response is expected to be much more muted than that of the Democratic House speaker. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. The Philippines is not disputed territory. A day before Harris’ trip, China’s foreign ministry said it was not opposed to the US interacting with other countries in the region, but it should be for “peace and stability and not harm the interests of other countries.”

Read more: Pelosi leaves Taiwan with the island and the world in a more precarious position

Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based political scientist and senior lecturer in international relations at the University of the Philippines, says Philippine-Chinese ties will not crumble over the territorial dispute over the South China Sea. But Beijing will be wary of Washington’s growing military investment in the archipelago, especially when it comes to a potential future conflict over Taiwan. “Both the South China Sea and the Taiwan crisis are prompting the United States and the Philippines to strengthen their alliances,” he says.

To reap the benefits of friendly relations with both China and the US, as the Philippines and many of its Southeast Asian partners seek, said Anna Malindog-Uy, a geopolitical analyst at the Philippine Institute for Strategic Studies in Asia in Manila. The Philippines should “prevent at all costs the possibility of becoming a pawn of any superpower to encircle another superpower.”

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