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U.S. VP Harris visits Philippines amid South China Sea tensions

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visits the Philippine island of Palawan on Tuesday as part of a three-day trip to an Asian ally central to America’s bid to counter China’s increasingly assertive stance in the region.

The U.S. VP visit to the Philippines is the highest-level trip to the country by a Biden administration official. It is seen as part of Washington’s effort to reestablish ties with Manila, which moved closer to China under former President Rodrigo Duterte.

On Monday, Harris pledged that the United States would defend the Philippines if it came under attack in the waterway, reaffirming Washington’s commitment to its former colony.

Her comments followed a meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who welcomed Harris for the first time at the Philippine presidential palace. Marcos said the two nations’ strong ties had become even more important, given what he described as “upheavals” in the region.

Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain massive oil and gas deposits and through which billions of dollars in trade passes each year.

A 2016 ruling by an arbitration tribunal in the Hague said Beijing’s South China Sea claims had no legal basis, delivering a victory for Manila. A U.S. official stated that Harris will also reaffirm Washington’s support for the 2016 tribunal ruling during the visit.

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 coast guard and its vast fishing fleet.

The visit comes with the U.S.-Sino tensions high, particularly over Taiwan, the democratically governed island China has long vowed to bring under its control.

“We are not against the U.S.’s interaction with regional countries,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning when asked to comment about Harris’ visit to Palawan. “But it should be good for regional peace and stability and not damaging to other countries’ interests.”

Washington and the Philippines have moved ahead with an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), dating from the Obama administration, though it languished under Duterte.

EDCA allows the United States to maintain a military presence, but not a permanent one, through the rotation of ships and aircraft for humanitarian and maritime security operations at mutually agreed Philippine bases.

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