The United States will stand by the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea, US Vice President Kamala Harris said on Tuesday while visiting the Palawan island in disputed waters.
On board a Philippine coastguard vessel docked in Puerto Princesa Bay, Harris said the United States and the broader international community “have a profound stake in the future of this region”.
Harris’s Palawan stop was part of a three-day visit to one of the US’s oldest security allies in Asia, which is also central to its bid to counter China’s increasingly assertive policies in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan.
“We must stand up for principles such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, unimpeded lawful commerce, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, and throughout the Indo-Pacific,” Harris said in a speech
Washington will press for an international campaign against “irresponsible behaviour in the disputed waters, she said.
Harris did not cite China by name but was referring to Beijing when she underscored the US’s support of treaty ally the Philippines.
Beijing has claimed almost all of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain massive oil and gas deposits and through which trillions of dollars in trade passes each year.
A 2016 ruling by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague said Beijing’s expansive South China Sea claims had no legal basis, delivering a victory for Manila.
But the Philippines has been unable to enforce the ruling and has since filed hundreds of protests over what it calls encroachment and harassment by China’s coastguard and its vast fishing fleet.
During her speech, Harris reiterated Washington’s support for the 2016 arbitration ruling, which China said it would not accept, saying the decision “is legally binding and must be respected”.
Harris’s highly symbolic visit to Palawan was the last leg of a visit that kicked off in Manila on Monday with talks with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
A new confrontation erupted in the run-up to her visit to Palawan when the Philippine navy alleged a Chinese coastguard vessel had forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris as Filipino sailors were towing it to a Philippine-controlled island.
Marcos Jr told reporters that he was inclined to send a diplomatic protest to China over the incident because China had denied that it forcibly seized the debris.
Marcos had said during one-to-one talks with Harris on Monday that the two nations’ strong ties had become even more important, given what he called “upheavals” in the region.
In the same talks, Harris reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty which obligated the allies to help defend each other, should one side come under attack.
“An armed attack on the Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US Mutual Defense commitments,” Harris told Marcos Jr. “And that is an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines.”
Before boarding the coastguard ship, Harris visited Tagburos, one of Palawan’s many coastal communities where she spoke with local leaders and fishermen, whose livelihoods are threatened by illegal and unreported fishing and climate change.
“Communities like this have seen the consequences, and people here know the impact when foreign vessels enter Philippine waters and illegally deplete the fishing stock, and when they harass and intimidate local fishers,” Harris said in an apparent swipe at China.
The visit came amid strained relations between China and the US, particularly over Taiwan, the democratically governed island China has long promised to bring under its control.
“China consistently believes that communication and cooperation between countries should be conducive to increasing understanding and trust between countries in the region,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a regular briefing.
We are not opposed to the United States and the Philippines having normal contact, but this kind of contact should not harm other countries’ interests,” he said.
Palawan is about 320 km (200 miles) from the Spratly Islands, where China has dredged the sea floor to build harbours and airstrips. Parts of the archipelago are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
In March, US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John C Aquilino told The Associated Press that China has fully militarised at least three of several islands it built in the disputed waters and armed them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment in an increasingly aggressive move that threatened all nations operating nearby.
The long-seething territorial conflicts involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei are regarded as an Asian flashpoint and a delicate fault line in the US-China rivalry in the region.
The US will provide an additional $7.5m in aid to Philippine maritime law enforcement agencies to boost their capacity to counter illegal fishing, carry out sea surveillance and help in search and rescue efforts, including in the South China Sea, according to a statement issued by the US vice president’s office.
The Philippine coastguard will also receive additional US help to upgrade a vessel traffic management system for better safety at sea. The Philippines is also now receiving real-time surveillance data to be able to detect and counter illicit activities at sea in a project by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal strategic bloc that involves the US, India, Japan and Australia, according to Harris’s office.
Chinese coastguard ships have blocked Philippine supply boats delivering supplies to Filipino forces in the disputed waters in the past but seizing objects in the possession of another nation’s military would constitute a more brazen act.
China has warned Washington not to meddle in what it calls an Asian dispute and has said that US Navy and Air Force patrols and combat exercises in the disputed waters were militarising the South China Sea.