US Vice President Kamala Harris (LA Times photo courtesy)
Many Filipinos will have their eyes and ears glued close to Malacanang on Monday when US Vice President Kamala Harris, the highest ranking official from the Biden administration to visit the country, will have talks with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
The visit of the 58-year-old Harris immediately follows her trip to Thailand where she attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference Summit, with political observers underlining what one senior US administration official has said that the Bangkok and Manila swing is expected to paint Washington as a “better partner” for countries in the region.
It will also show that the US remains committed to Southeast Asia amid its competition with China and the war in Ukraine.
Coming just days after a three-hour, face-to-face meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Bangkok intended to ease tensions, the Manila trip, which includes a meeting Tuesday in Palawan with “residents, civil society leaders and representatives of the Philippines Coast Guard,” may frustrate Beijing.
Palawan’s shorelines are lapped by the West Philippine Sea which joins the South China Sea, and which contains massive oil and gas deposits, and has been the stage for US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade each year but also a flash point for Chinese and US tensions around naval operations.
The senior US official said Harris’ Manila leg will show the Biden administration’s “commitment to stand with our Philippine ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea, supporting maritime livelihoods and countering illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.”
Manila is a defense ally of Washington, but under then President Rodrigo Duterte the former avoided criticizing Beijing, eyeing Chinese investment.
Manila announced earlier that Washington would spend US$66.5 million to start building training and warehouse facilities at three of its military bases in the Philippines under a 2014 joint security deal.
In the Philippines, Harris is expected to meet separately with President Marcos Jr., seven years her senior, and Vice President Sara Duterte, 14 years her junior.
Harris’ trip marks her second to Asia in three months and follows Biden’s week-long trip to the region.
Both trips were aimed at shoring up both defenses and alliances to discourage aggressive steps by China, including in self-ruled Taiwan. During her last trip to the region, Harris accused China of actions to “coerce and intimidate” neighbors.
Political observers are saying talks between Marcos and Harris may focus on the long-standing Philippines and US security alliance, as well as efforts to strengthen economic ties.
In line with these discussions, Harris is expected to reaffirm Washington’s defense commitments to Manila and underscore ties between the two countries in maintaining peace in the South China Sea.
On the economic front, Harris’ visit will include the announcement of new initiatives on accelerating the Philippines’ transition to clean energy and strengthening its digital economy, both of which have been identified as priority areas by the Marcos administration.
We are aware that while in Manila, Harris will also meet with activists to discuss human rights and democracy in the Philippines, favorite topics of Americans. The US leader will later hold a moderated town hall with young Filipinos on empowering women.
The issue is personal advocacy for Harris, with the discussion in the Philippines a “first of its kind” for the US Vice President during an overseas trip, considering it will see Harris “directly engaging” with the public in the country.
On Tuesday, Harris will meet with the Philippine Coast Guard and local communities in Palawan in a move seen as significant because Harris will be the highest-ranking US official ever to visit the island, which sits at the edge of the West Philippine Sea in the South China Sea.
“This visit demonstrates the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to stand with our Philippine ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea, supporting maritime livelihoods, and countering illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing,” a senior US official said.
Harris will also deliver a speech in Puerto Princesa that will highlight the rule of law in the sea as well as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Some see this move as likely to irritate China with whom the Philippines remains in dispute in the South China Sea.
Many see in the Harris’ visit a symbol – as it were a brand of her diplomacy – as China continues to claim waters off the coast of Palawan in the West Philippine Sea, despite the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral award that struck down Beijing’s claims in the area as illegal.
“The Vice President feels very strongly about getting outside of government buildings and engaging directly with people who often don’t get to interact with high-ranking US officials,” a senior US official said.
“It’s a prime example of the way the Vice President seeks to engage on the world stage.
Beyond rhetoric, Harris’ visit to Palawan “will be a clear signal that the US is committed to deepening the alliance and to upholding alliance commitments in the South China Sea,” said Gregory Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington DC.