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U.S. stands with Philippines against coercion in South China Sea: VP Harris

Washington will stand by the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said on Tuesday during her visit to the Palawan island in the disputed waters.

The United States and the broader international community “have a profound stake in the future of this region,” the U.S. VP said aboard a Philippine coastguard vessel docked in the Puerto Princesa bay.

“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,” she said in a speech.

The United States is proud of our historic ties with the Philippines. In my meeting with President Marcos in Manila, we discussed ways we can strengthen our economic and security relationship.

— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) November 22, 2022

Chinese inroads

Ms Harris’ Palawan stop was part of a three-day visit to one of the United States’ oldest security allies in Asia, which is also pivotal to its efforts to counter China’s increasingly assertive policies in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan.

Thank you to the people of Thailand for such a warm welcome.

— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) November 20, 2022

Believed to contain massive oil and gas deposits, nearly the entire South China Sea is claimed by Beijing. The basin is also netted with trade passes yielding trillions of dollars 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.

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.

In her speech, Ms Harris offered a reiteration of Washington’s support for the 2016 arbitration ruling, which China said it would not accept, claiming it is “legally binding” and one that “must be respected”.

South China Sea waters scalding-hot

Tuesday saw Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr saying his country would dispatch a diplomatic note to Beijing in the wake of an incident in the South China Sea involving a floating rocket piece.

The incident unfolded ahead of Harris’ arrival, the highest-level trip to the Philippines by a Biden administration official that is seen as part of Washington’s effort to revive ties with Manila, which moved closer to China under former President Rodrigo Duterte.

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.

During a face-to-face parlay with VP Harris on Monday, President Marcos said the two nations’ strong ties had become even more crucial, given what he described as “upheavals” in the region.

Before boarding the coastguard ship, VP 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,” Ms Harris said in an apparent jibe at China.

The visit comes amidst tattered relations between China and the United States, particularly over Taiwan, the democratically governed island over which China has long vowed to restore 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 from the Spratly islands, where China has dredged the sea floor to construct harbours and aircraft runways. Parts of the archipelago are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

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