US has ‘unwavering commitment’ to defend Philippines if attacked in South China Sea: Kamala Harris

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr welcoming US Vice-President Kamala Harris at his Manila office on Nov 21. PHOTO: OFFICE OF THE PHILIPPINE PRESS SECRETARY

MANILA - US Vice-President Kamala Harris has reaffirmed Washington’s “unwavering commitment” to protect the Philippines in the event of an armed attack in the disputed South China Sea, during a three-day visit aimed at mending ties with one of its oldest allies in South-east Asia.

In a meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr on Monday, Ms Harris described the relationship between their two countries as a “long and enduring one” and promised that the United States would stand with Manila “in defence of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea”.

“An armed attack on the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke the US’ mutual defence commitments ­– and that is an unwavering commitment that we have in the Philippines,” said Ms Harris, who arrived on Sunday after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Bangkok.

A smiling Mr Marcos replied: “I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States.”

Ms Harris is the highest-ranking US official to visit the Philippines since Mr Marcos took office in June.

She also met her Philippine counterpart Sara Duterte, daughter of former president Rodrigo Duterte.

It was during Mr Duterte’s term that US-Philippines ties turned cold, as he declared “independence” from Washington while seeking friendlier ties with Beijing.

Mr Duterte had also downplayed a historic international tribunal ruling in 2016 that struck down Beijing’s expansive claim over the South China Sea while asserting that the West Philippine Sea “exclusively belongs to Filipinos, and no one else”.

The West Philippine Sea, an official designation by the Philippines, refers to the eastern parts of the South China Sea that fall within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Washington is now seeking a fresh start under Mr Marcos, who has gone on a charm offensive in a bid to bolster security alliances with the US amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and regarding Taiwan.

The 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty signed by the US and Philippines prescribes both countries’ commitment to defend each other in the event of an armed attack by a hostile party. Another pact signed in 2014, called the Enhanced Defence Cooperation, also allows the US military to construct facilities and preposition assets on five Philippine bases.

A senior US official told reporters that Ms Harris is expected to reiterate support for these military pacts on Tuesday, when she flies to the island province of Palawan – the biggest Philippine island adjacent to the disputed Spratly archipelago and seen as Manila’s sentinel in the South China Sea dispute.

Some Filipino activists have long opposed the presence of American troops on Philippine soil and were unhappy over the US Vice-President’s visit. About 200 of them staged a protest at a busy avenue in Manila, a few kilometres from where Ms Harris and Mr Marcos met at his office. One placard described her as “Harris Imperialist”.

Despite the protest, Ms Harris pushed through with her private meeting with human rights defenders and her town hall event on women’s empowerment at the posh Sofitel hotel.

There, she urged Filipino women’s rights advocates to draw inspiration from World War II heroine Josefa Llanes Escoda, feminist Concepcion De Leon, as well as democracy icon Corazon Aquino, who became president after Mr Marcos’ dictator father was deposed in 1986.

“Know that you stand on the shoulders (of those) who came before you… who charted a course for you to pick up the mantle,” said Ms Harris, the first woman of colour to become US Vice-President.

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