Harris trip marks new phase in PH-US ties

MANILA, Philippines – Just five months into his administration, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has seen an unprecedented pace of high-level contacts between the Philippines and the United States.

It comes as the longtime allies seek to renew ties critical to responding to growing threats in the region after six tumultuous years under President Rodrigo Duterte, who at one point announced his military and economic “separation” from the United States. :

The latest US official to visit the Philippines is Vice President Kamala Harris, Washington’s top female leader, whose ongoing visit from the US is fueling efforts to further strengthen security ties between the two treaty allies as well as deepen economic cooperation.

Part of his trip includes announcing updates on major military deals and unveiling 17 new initiatives in healthcare, clean energy, high-tech manufacturing and the rollout of 5G networks, all during the 3-day trip.

Keeping with the practice of going outside the capitals on foreign trips, the vice president is also visiting Puerto Princesa, Palawan, an island on the edge of the South China Sea, to demonstrate Washington’s commitment to supporting Manila in its territorial dispute with China. .

Beyond rhetoric, Harris’ presence in Palawan sends a “clear signal” that the United States will take steps to deepen and maintain alliance commitments in the South China Sea, said Gregory Pauling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington.

Pauling told Rappler. “Any leader’s time is their most valuable asset, and where they choose to spend it always sends a message. In this case, the vice president says that spending a day in Puerto Princesa is more important than anything he could do with that day.”

It’s all part of a new push by Washington to strengthen ties with its oldest ally in Asia, a key relationship in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Before Harris, Marcos had already met with at least four high-ranking American officials.

A visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in June put to rest questions about whether the Philippine leader would be allowed to set foot in America. Sherman had made it clear that Marcos, as head of state, would enjoy immunity from a US court’s contempt order against his late father, dictator Ferdinand E. With the human rights lawsuits filed against Marcos.

Washington, D.C., First Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, who presided over Marcos’ inauguration, personally handed the new leader an invitation from US President Joe Biden to go to Washington on a state visit. The success of the trip was one of the factors that led Harris to add a Philippine stop to his current Asian tour, Reuters reported.

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And while tensions flared in Taiwan over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last August, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken traveled to Manila, where he pledged to strengthen military ties hand-in-hand with the country’s top officials. The Philippines and Taiwan share a maritime border in the northernmost part of Luzon.

ALLIES: Philippine President Marcos meets US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2022.

The following month, Marcos and Biden held their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where discussions between the two leaders stretched beyond the half hour originally scheduled for their presentation.

“They want to show that they are really doing everything they can to convince the Philippines that this is important,” said Jose Cuzia Jr., a former Philippine ambassador to the United States. “We are getting the message that the US wants to engage … and strengthen the partnership.”

The message was well-received among Philippine officials, as visits like Harris’s serve as “a concrete demonstration of the Philippines’ place on the US radar,” a diplomatic source told Rappler.

Lessons from Duterte

Under former President Duterte, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Austin were among the few top officials to travel to Manila during the Philippine leader’s six-year term. Duterte, who once told former President Barack Obama to “go to hell,” has often clashed with Washington over its bloody drug campaign and vowed never to visit “horrible” America until his final days in office.

In addition to his inflammatory speech, Duterte also disappointed the US by choosing to forge closer ties with China instead. In the second half of his administration, relations between the Philippines and the United States hit a nadir when Duterte unilaterally canceled the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries, a decision he later reversed in 2021, due in part to rising tensions with China in the West Philippine Sea.

Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo said the incident further gave the old allies new impetus to reassess the decades-old relationship and push for closer cooperation as “equal and sovereign partners”. During the bilateral strategic dialogue held in November 2021, the two countries formalized a roadmap for upgrading the alliance, which included high-level visits between Philippine and US officials.

Since then, the stakes have been raised for both countries as the Philippines prepares as a strategic partner for its rivalry with the US and China.

“It makes sense to invest a high level of attention in reestablishing a deepened partnership with this young, populous, prosperous and strategically located ally,” former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russell told Reuters.

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Why is the US seeking closer security cooperation with the Philippines?

Foreign trips to the Philippines by senior US officials have been one of the strongest signs of renewed focus on the ground. Career diplomat Mary Kay Carlson, the US ambassador to the Philippines, told reporters at a roundtable last October that “37 years in the Foreign Service and I’ve been appointed to big, big positions, this level of involvement, I think. unheard of.”

Along with the list of high-profile visits, Carlson said the arrival of the US Navy secretary, senior security officials and “a constellation of 29 stars as flag officers, three star generals, four star generals, including the commander. Marine Corps.”

U.S. officials often cite “enthusiastic enthusiasm” along with the lack of physical interactions during the pandemic as reasons for the increase in high-level interactions.

Many in diplomatic circles in the Philippines point to lessons learned under Duterte as the bloc has weathered tensions as well as a more complex global landscape that calls for more “far-sighted” cooperation.

While it countered Duterte’s open hostility toward the United States, a “threatening complacency in favor of the alliance” had built up along the coast for years, said Gregory Winger of the University of Cincinnati and Julio Amador, president of the Foundation. National interest in the Philippines. If it is to respond to emerging threats, including threats from Taiwan and climate change, both countries must develop a partnership not only militarily, but also politically.

Speaking at a forum on Philippines-US relations last October, Manalo said: “President Marcos, well aware of the complexities of the current geopolitical environment, seeks to further strengthen our relationship by, in his words, ‘developing the alliance’ that makes them. more responsive to current and emerging challenges”.

He added: “It is clear from the recent relations that both sides want to avoid the same wrong steps in the past, which caused some irritations in our relations.”

Philippine ambassador in Washington, Jose Manuel Romualdez, was more frank. “The US does not take us lightly,” he told Reuters.

PARTNERSHIP. Filipino and American soldiers participate in a live-fire exercise during the annual US-Philippines joint exercise, or Balicatan, in Crow Valley, Capas, Tarlac on March 31, 2022.
Open opportunities

Marcos himself raised hopes for a new phase of ties.

Speaking to an audience at the New York Stock Exchange, Marcos said he “can’t see the Philippines in the future without the United States as a partner.” Earlier, Marcos had told Blinken that the relationship between the Philippines and the US would only become more important after the tension in Taiwan showed the intensity of pressure in the region.

“It’s actually been at that level for quite some time, but we got used to it and put it aside,” Marcos said at the time.

He added recently at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Thailand. “The relationship between the United States and the Philippines must continue to grow, and it will.”

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A senior US administration official, speaking to reporters in the background, announced Harris’ visit as a response to Manila’s appeal. The vice president’s visit, at the very least, seeks to further push the message that the US is getting more serious about improving relations with the Philippines.

On the economic front, there is room to deepen cooperation with Marcos’ visit to New York, which will bring $3.9 billion in investment pledges in areas that include agriculture, information technology, business process management, energy and aviation.

Another highlight of the trip, Harris’ planned visit to Palawan, also makes clear that the Biden administration is committed to “standing with our Philippine ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea, supporting marine livelihoods, and countering illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.” , the American official said.

In his scheduled speech at the Philippine Coast Guard, the vice president is expected to repeat the same message from Washington that the two partners’ Mutual Defense Treaty covers the South China Sea.

Still, analysts have so far seen Harris’ decision to travel to Palawan, an island known as the nation’s last frontier, as significant because it sits on the edge of the West Philippine Sea, offering the advantage over Philippine waters that China has continued to claim. illegally.

The armed forces of the Philippine Western Command, whose troops are responsible for the defense of the West Philippine Sea, are also stationed in the area.

The island is also home to fishing communities whose livelihoods have not only been affected by the fleets of foreign vessels that have crowded Philippine waters, but also increased by climate change.

While the move is expected to infuriate Beijing, Marcos downplayed the possibility that it would affect relations with China. “It’s the closest area to the South China Sea, but it’s very clearly in Philippine territory. So, I don’t think it should be, I don’t think it will cause problems,” he said.

Still, the gesture is a move some would have found hard to imagine nearly a decade ago, when the Philippines took China to court over its incursions in the West Philippine Sea. “Before, they didn’t support our position very openly,” Kuzia said.

When Harris set foot in Palava, he added: “They are actually showing their support for our position in the West Philippine Sea, they are in favor of respecting international order and respecting international law.” – Rappler.com

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