What Kamala Harris’ Journey to the Philippines Means for China

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American leaders have made quite a few visits to the Philippines, a long-standing army ally in Southeast Asia. However Vice President Kamala Harris’ cease on Tuesday within the nation’s archipelagic province of Palawan represents one thing new. She is the primary U.S. official to go there, in what observers say is supposed extra as a message to China than one to the Philippines.

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Harris toured a coast guard vessel and spoke to Philippine officers in Palawan to underscore America’s values and hopes for the area: “respect for sovereignty and worldwide integrity, unimpeded lawful commerce, the peaceable decision of disputes, and freedom of navigation.”

The Vice President’s go to, together with talks in Manila on Monday about elevated joint protection initiatives, leaves the Philippines in a precarious place—straddling the road between the pursuits of its colonizer-turned-ally within the U.S. and its largest commerce companion in China. Throughout the area, nations have been put in the same tight spot, more and more compelled to decide on a aspect the place they may favor to remain above the fray within the competitors for international affect between the U.S. and China.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris meets with Philippines President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. at Malacanang Palace in Manila on Nov. 21, 2022.

Haiyun Jiang—Pool/Getty Pictures

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was elected president of the Philippines in Could, stated in July that, like a lot of his regional counterparts, he would pursue “a buddy to all, an enemy to none” international coverage. However this intention has develop into extra untenable as variations between the world’s two superpowers develop over points regarding human rights, financial coverage, and the rule of legislation.

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It’s no coincidence Harris visited Palawan. Simply off its west coast is the South China Sea: a waterway that has develop into a regional flashpoint after Beijing lay declare to nearly all of it and its encompassing islands, citing historic maps. China isn’t the one claimant—the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan have additionally staked claims to overlapping maritime territories. However China has bolstered its presence lately, constructing synthetic islands from the ocean’s obscure reefs and sandbars and arming them with missile methods. A U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, invalidated most of China’s sweeping claims in 2016, however Beijing ignores the ruling and continues to militarize the area.

Learn Extra: Simply The place Precisely Did China Get the South China Sea 9-Sprint Line From?

Native tensions within the South China Sea eased some after the Philippines, which lodged the grievance in opposition to China to The Hague, underneath former President Rodrigo Duterte didn’t implement the tribunal’s ruling. Duterte was eager on pivoting the Philippines away from its deference to the U.S.. As Duterte was reluctant to carry Beijing to account to clean diplomatic relations, Chinese language incursions within the contested waterway elevated.

Since Marcos Jr. succeeded Duterte, he has sought to revive the Philippines’ relationship with the U.S., whose army nonetheless actively challenges China’s claims within the South China Sea. On the identical time, Marcos Jr. insists that Harris’ go to is not going to pressure Manila-Beijing ties. “I don’t suppose it should trigger issues,” he informed Philippine reporters final week. However Lucio Pitlo, a analysis fellow from Manila-based suppose tank Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Basis, says China will certainly be maintaining a tally of the go to and can “absolutely categorical severe concern about” the U.S.’s growing army footprint within the nation.

Resetting the connection with the U.S.

A number of key treaties over previous a long time type the bedrock of the partnership between the U.S. and the Philippines. A 1951 Mutual Protection Treaty states that each nations will present help to one another within the occasion of an exterior assault. This has been reaffirmed by a 1998 Visiting Forces Settlement and a 2014 Enhanced Protection Cooperation Settlement, permitting the U.S. army to entry bases within the Southeast Asian nation and retailer protection tools there. The 2 militaries additionally repeatedly maintain joint workout routines.

By advantage of its geography, the Philippines has strategic worth for the U.S. in its competitors with China. In addition to having the South China Sea to its west, the foremost island of Luzon—which accommodates the nation’s capital Manila—is barely 360 km south of Taiwan.

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Derek Grossman, a senior protection analyst on the international coverage suppose tank RAND Company, says the reinvigorated U.S.-Philippines alliance underneath Philippine chief Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has “actual safety implications for China within the South China Sea.”

Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative on the Washington-based Middle for Strategic and Worldwide Research, stated the Philippines will discover it “very troublesome to remain impartial” if battle arises in Taiwan and the U.S. turns into concerned. Some 150,000 Filipinos residing in Taiwan could be in danger, and the Philippines could “cope with a refugee disaster together with different externalities,” he provides.

In a September interview with Japanese outlet Nikkei Asia, the Philippine envoy to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez—a cousin of Marcos Jr.—stated Manila would let Washington use its bases within the occasion of a Taiwan battle, “if it’s essential for us, for our personal safety.” It’s a tonal shift from when Duterte, who needed besides U.S. forces out of the archipelago, was in cost. In a 2016 journey to Beijing, Duterte proclaimed that it was “time to say goodbye to Washington.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speak to each other during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China, on Aug. 30, 2019. (How Hwee Young—Pool/Getty Images)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese language Premier Li Keqiang communicate to one another throughout their assembly on the Nice Corridor of the Individuals, in Beijing, China, on Aug. 30, 2019.

How Hwee Younger—Pool/Getty Pictures

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However whereas Marcos Jr. has taken a special tack than his predecessor, he’s cautious to not alienate China as he pursues revamping ties with Washington. He met with China’s Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Financial Cooperation Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, final week shortly earlier than Harris’ go to, promising an enchancment of the Manila-Beijing relations.

Marcos needs to keep away from a repeat of the previous. After a Philippine vessel squared off with Chinese language boats throughout the Philippines’ unique financial zone again in 2012, China imposed commerce limitations on bananas from the Philippines. Banana exports to China fell by round 27% to 473,000 metric tons in 2012 from 650,000 tons the yr prior. The fruit is likely one of the nation’s main agriculture exports, and its growers believed the dispute was guilty for his or her financial losses.

Treading a high quality line with China

China’s international ministry issued a press release after the assembly in Bangkok final week saying it should work along with the Philippines in opposition to “bullying” within the South China Sea—one thing Beijing and Washington every accuse the opposite of doing with their army actions within the area. Marcos Jr., for his half, clarified that his international coverage doctrine has all the time been to interact with all events, particularly in regards to the maritime dispute. “Let’s not enable anybody to dictate what we should always do,” he informed reporters final week.

In a briefing in Palawan, Harris reiterated America’s help for the 2016 ruling from The Hague on the South China Sea dispute, including that the U.S. “will proceed to rally our allies and companions in opposition to illegal and irresponsible conduct” within the area. Washington additionally promised to present Manila $7.5 million value of help to its maritime legislation enforcement businesses.

Beijing has but to react to Harris’ assertion, though its response is anticipated to be far more muted than the response to Democratic Home Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s go to to Taiwan in August. The Philippines isn’t disputed territory. The day earlier than Harris’ journey, China’s international ministry stated it’s not in opposition to the U.S. interacting with different states within the area—however it needs to be for “peace and stability and never damaging to different nations’ pursuits.”

Learn Extra: Pelosi Leaves Taiwan With the Island—and World—in a Extra Precarious Place

Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based political scientist and senior lecturer of worldwide affairs on the College of the Philippines, says Philippine-China ties received’t break down over the South China Sea territorial row. But it surely’s Washington’s growing army investments on the archipelago that Beijing shall be cautious of, notably in the case of potential future battle over Taiwan. “Each the South China Sea and the Taiwan disaster are nudging america and Philippines to fortify their alliances,” he says.

To reap the advantages of amicable relations with each China and the U.S., because the Philippines and lots of of its counterparts throughout Southeast Asia search to do, says Anna Malindog-Uy, a geopolitical analyst on the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Research Institute in Manila, the Philippines should “forestall in any respect prices the potential of changing into a pawn of any superpower to encircle one other superpower.”

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