MANILA – On board one of the Philippines’ biggest vessels patrolling the disputed South China Sea, US Vice-President Kamala Harris on Tuesday announced that Washington is allotting US$7.5 million (S$10.3 million) to boost the capabilities of Manila’s maritime law enforcement agencies.
Ms Harris said the funding would help the Philippines better combat illegal fishing, as well as enhance monitoring systems and upgrade equipment used in patrolling its waters, including parts of the South China Sea.
On Tuesday, she became the first US official to visit Puerto Princesa city in Palawan, the island province in western Philippines considered to be Manila’s stronghold in the South China Sea dispute.
Aboard the BRP Teresa Magbanua – a vessel named after a Filipino schoolteacher turned military leader who led resistance movements against the Philippines’ three major colonisers, Spain, the US and Japan – Ms Harris reasserted Washington’s support for Manila’s 2016 arbitral victory against Beijing over its expansive claim in the South China Sea.
The tribunal had struck down Beijing’s nine-dash claim over the disputed waters and ruled that the West Philippine Sea belongs to Manila, not China. An official designation by the Philippines, the West Philippine Sea refers to the eastern parts of the South China Sea that fall within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
But Beijing has rejected this ruling and continues its dredging and artificial island-building activities in parts of the South China Sea located within the Philippines’ EEZ.
Short of mentioning China, Ms Harris said the US stands with the Philippines “in the face of coercion” in the South China Sea, a conduit for about US$3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade each year.
“The tribunal’s decision is legally binding and must be respected. We will continue to rally our allies and partners against unlawful and irresponsible behaviour. When the international rules-based order is threatened somewhere, it is threatened everywhere,” she said.
“The United States and the broader international community have a profound stake in the future of this region. America’s prosperity relies on the billions of dollars that flow through these waters every day. And we are proud to work with you in your mission.”
The US Agency for International Development also kicked off a new partnership with local stakeholders in Palawan, to craft programmes that would support traditional livelihoods and sustainable fishing practices, as well as advance the conservation of vulnerable marine ecosystems.
Ms Harris arrived in Manila on Sunday evening straight from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand, and left the Philippines on Tuesday afternoon. The Philippines, located just 193km from Taiwan and adjacent to the South China Sea, is a strategic ally for both the US and China.
The US has been doubling down in its efforts to strengthen ties with economies in the region amid China’s growing influence in South-east Asia and a possible conflict over Taiwan.
This has been welcomed by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has vowed to defend the Philippines’ maritime rights, reversing his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s pro-China stance.