Holding the diplomatic gear

Holding the diplomatic gear

US Vice President Khamala Harris

Column: Thoughts by Armenio Manuel

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will be meeting today (Monday) with US Vice President Kamala Harris in what is seen as part of the diplomatic gear to revive ties, on the part of Washington, with its oldest ally in Asia, and check Beijing’s perceived assertive policies towards Taiwan.

The Manila swing, preceded by a trip to Bangkok, Thailand for the Asia Economic Conference, which was also attended by Mr. Marcos and US President Joe Biden, is seen by political and military analysts as part of the diplomatic push to strengthen Washington’s ties with allies following the growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, not helped any by a possible conflict between Beijing and Taipei.

The talks between the two, separate from the scheduled talks Harris will hold with Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio, will precede a trip by Harris to Palawan facing the West Philippine Sea to meet with residents, civil society leaders, and representatives of the Philippine Coast Guard.

“This is another historic visit, as the Vice President is the highest-ranking US official ever to visit Palawan (and) 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 Washington official said.

Harris will be delivering remarks before the PCG which, the official noted, is seen to spotlight “the importance of international law, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”

The official pointed out that Harris’ stop in Palawan’s capital highlights her aim to directly interact with people who often don’t get the opportunity to meet with high-ranking US officials.

Manila’s ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez has said tension over self-governing Taiwan, only less than 150 kms (94 miles) away from the Philippines’ northernmost Mavulis Island in Batanes, is expected to be on their discussion plate apart from economic issues.

The rocky island is part of the Luzon Volcanic Arc, and is 141 kilometers (88 mi) southeast of the southern tip of Taiwan’s main island and 98 km to the nearest Taiwanese island, the “Lesser Orchid Island.”

Observers say the Philippines, which has hundreds of thousands of Chinese both from the mainland and Taiwan, would face some problems should refugees find their eyes southward in the event of any conflict with China, according to military analysts.

Diplomatic sources have said Harris is likely to give Mr. Marcos a “fairly good briefing” on the three-hour meeting between US President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of this week’s summit of the G20 grouping of countries in Indonesia.

Beijing has long said it would bring the self-governed island of Taiwan, which it views as an inalienable part of China, under its control and has not ruled out the use of force to do so.

It has frequently accused the United States in recent years of encouraging Taiwan independence.

“What happens in Taiwan will affect the entire ASEAN region. If there is a conflict that happens in Taiwan, nobody is going to be spared,” Romualdez said.

A Taiwan crisis could destabilize the Philippine economy and trigger a refugee crisis.

In Marcos, son and namesake of the longest-serving Philippine chief executive, President Joe Biden, and his national security aides see a strategic and out-of-the-blue strong ally for its top foreign policy challenge — competition with China.

“It makes sense to invest high-level attention to restore deepened cooperation across the board with this youthful, populous, prospering, and strategically located ally,” said Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia under former President Barack Obama and now with the Asia Society.

Many see in Harris’ visit, the highest-level trip to the Philippines by an official from the Biden administration – Vice Presidents Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew previously visited the Philippines – as a legend for a sharp turnaround in bilateral bonds.

Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first incumbent president to visit a Southeast Asian country when he visited the Philippines in 1960. Since then, every president, except John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, had traveled to the region.

Mr. Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, frustrated Washington with a strongman approach, perceived closeness to Beijing, and an antagonistic tone that included appearing to call Barack Obama a “son of a bitch.”

With Marcos in office, the Biden administration is attempting a reposition.

Much is expected between 6 as the sun rises across the Manila sky and sets at 5.24 – with the exact time of the bilateral talks not known as yet.


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