Great expectations

Great expectations

US Vice President Kamala Harris and President Marcos

Column: Thoughts by Armenio Manuel

In the days, even months, hence, following the meeting in Malacanang between President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and visiting US Vice President Kamala Harris, political and diplomatic observers will be looking for the translation of what transpired in that meeting near the meandering Pasig River.

It is not enough that we are told the 58-year-old Harris reaffirmed the strength of Washington’s bilateral ties with Manila, even noting the long history as friends, allies, and partners.

The Vice President stressed that the Biden-Harris Administration is committed to strengthening these ties and underscored the strength of America’s security and economic partnership with the Philippines as it welcomed expanding cooperation, which supports a free and open Indo-Pacific.

We understand Harris and President Marcos discussed several global issues and the importance of standing up for international rules and norms.

The Vice President reiterated the interests of the United States in peace and stability in the South China Sea and that the United States stands with its long-time Asian ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order, unimpeded lawful commerce, and respect of international law, including freedoms of navigation and overflight.

At the same time, the Vice President reaffirmed that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

That part appears, to many observers, a very important ingredient in bilateral relations.

Harris also discussed Washington’s expanding Coast Guard partnership and maritime law enforcement cooperation, which supports the lives and livelihoods of the Filipino people.

In the same breath, Harris condemned North Korea’s destabilizing missile tests and Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Many Filipinos understandably are initially delighted with Harris underscoring that the United States is committed to working closely with the Philippines to strengthen its economic partnership and investment ties between the two allies.

Many observers will be keenly monitoring the flesh and bones of such commitment, even as Harris discussed expanding shared efforts on food and energy security issues.

At the same time, President Marcos and his guest, who like him attended the recent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok, Thailand, welcomed the initiation of negotiations on a “123” civil nuclear cooperation agreement to expand cooperation on zero-emission technology and nonproliferation priorities.

They also discussed the urgency of the climate crisis, as well as the opportunities presented by accelerating the transition to clean energy, and welcomed our growing cooperation on climate action.

Indeed, much is expected from the Malacanang talks, which was followed Tuesday by Harris’ visit to Palawan whose shoreline faces the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea where lie overlapping claims on some islands by neighboring countries.

While some observers are not exactly skeptical, they listened to the phrasal verbs of the highest-ranking official to visit the Philippines under President Marcos when she reaffirmed Washington’s ”unwavering” security guarantees to its oldest Asian ally the Philippines.

“We must reiterate always that we stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as they relate to the South China Sea,” said Harris, adding “an armed attack on the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments. And that is an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines.”

The Filipino leader, who spoke before Harris, seven years his junior, himself recognized Manila’s long-standing alliance with Washington, stressing “I have said many times, I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States. That really has come from the very long relationship that we have had with the US.”

We know that foreign relations watchers and experts in various capitals – including but not limited to Beijing, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, and Canberra – have watched the historic meeting including Harris’ body English in Palawan.

We are sure they have noted that security is at the top of the vice president’s agenda, particularly with the Palawan trip near the South China Sea, a strategic waterway, where Beijing has flexed its military muscle to assert its cross-disciplinary claim.

Six years ago, the Philippines won an international arbitration case, in which China did not participate and has repeatedly nixed such rulings.

It is understood that Harris also sought to bolster security cooperation through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which gives the US armed forces access to Philippine military bases.

Washington, according to a senior US administration official said, has allocated $82 million for EDCA’s implementation “and more is on the way.”

“There are currently five EDCA locations. And we’re announcing now that we have identified new locations to deepen our work together,” the official said.

The two officials must have discussed wide-ranging aspects of US-Philippines bilateral relations — from defense to trade and investments.

Philippine officials last week said they were considering additional sites in Palawan and in the northern province of Cagayan, which faces Taiwan.

There is hope in some observers and analysts that the visit will not be interpreted as stoking fire where there should be none.


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