Estrada says Harris’ Palawan visit means strong PH-US ties

(MANILA STANDARD) Sen. Jinggoy Estrada said the planned trip of US Vice President Kamala Harris to the Philippines is a manifestation of the robust RP-US relations. 

He said it is an expression of the enduring alliance and strategic partnership of the two countries. 

“We can also view such as being consistent with the November 2021 Joint Vision Statement (JVS) of the two countries which expressed resolve to sustain cooperation across key areas of concern through the conduct of high-level visits and dialogues,” he said.

Harris’ visit to Palawan is historic, being the highest-ranking US official to visit the island- province.  

As a strong ally, Estrada noted that it is a clear manifestation of their commitment to stand with the government or demonstrate their support and solidarity for the rule of law and maritime law.

Harris will visit Palawan, which faces the disputed South China Sea, when she comes over on an official visit next week, a senior American official earlier said.

The official from the US Embassy in Manila, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, said Harris will be the highest-ranking American official to visit the western island province adjacent to the disputed Spratly Islands in a show of support to the Philippines.

Manila announced earlier Tuesday that Washington would spend $66.5 million to start building training and warehouse facilities at three of its military bases there under a 2014 joint security deal.

China has fortified parts of disputed Spratlys, which are also being claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam aside from the Philippines.

The visit, scheduled on Tuesday next week, comes after Harris arrives in Manila on Sunday night, Nov. 20, after attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bangkok, Thailand,

The 58-year-old Harris will meet President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Vice President Sara Duterte on Nov. 21, Monday, to enhance security and economic ties, the US official said.

“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,” the US official told reporters.

Harris will visit residents, civil society, and the Philippine Coast Guard in Palawan’s capital Puerto Princesa City.

The trip will “reaffirm our defense commitments to the Philippines and the importance of our alliance in peace and stability in the South China Sea”, the official said.

Harris will also discuss countering illegal fishing and hold a separate event on women’s empowerment.

The United States, which has a treaty alliance with its former colony, has been increasingly outspoken in supporting Southeast Asian nations in myriad disputes with a more assertive China.

Beijing claims some territories in the waters off Palawan and much of the South China Sea, citing domestic historical maps. But a 2016 arbitration ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration said China’s claims had no legal basis, in a victory for Manila.

The South China Sea, which contains massive oil and gas deposits, is the stage for $5 trillion in ship-borne trade each year but also a flashpoint for Chinese and US tensions around naval operations.

The Philippines is a defense ally of the United States, but under former President Rodrigo Duterte it avoided criticizing Beijing, eyeing Chinese investment.

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, the US VP accused China of actions to “coerce and intimidate” neighbors.

Gregory Poling, an expert on the South China Sea issue, stressed Harris’ visit could send a strong message to the Philippines without angering Beijing because it is not a visit to a disputed territory.

“It will be reassuring to the Philippines by sending a clear signal that, even with Ukraine and Taiwan center stage, the United States still recognizes the South China Sea as central to the future of the US-Philippine alliance,” said Poling, the director of the Southeast Asia Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He expected Harris to also visit a facility being established under the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement at Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, which is the home of the Philippines military command in charge of defending and patrolling the Spratly Islands.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of it.

Beijing has ignored a 2016 international tribunal ruling that its claims have no legal basis.

Unlike Duterte, who set aside his country’s legal victory, Mr. Marcos has pledged to uphold the court decision and insisted he would not let China trample on Manila’s maritime rights.

Tensions between Manila and Beijing flared last year after hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, which lie in the disputed waters.

Last November, Chinese coastguard ships fired water cannons at Philippine boats delivering supplies to marines at Second Thomas Shoal in the same archipelago.

The announcement of the Harris visit comes days after Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Bali, where both leaders voiced hope for preventing tensions from spiraling out of control.

Biden — on a trip that has also taken him to a Southeast Asian summit in Cambodia and the UN climate conference in Egypt — is skipping the APEC summit in Bangkok to attend his granddaughter’s wedding. With AFP