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Kamala Harris Heads to Philippines to Pick a Fight With China

US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at Claflin University in South Carolina on September 20, 2022.The vice president has evoked a steady stream of face palm reactions at home and abroad in response to a series of foreign policy gaffes, from her praise for the US alliance “with the Republic of North Korea,” to her cringe-worthy “Ukraine is a country in Europe” explanation of the Ukrainian security crisis.US Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in the Philippines on Sunday for talks with senior officials, including Philippines’ President Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr.The trip is part of Harris’s second visit to Asia since she traveled Japan and South Korea in September, and comes following her meeting with the prime minister of Thailand in Bangkok on Saturday on the sidelines of the APEC Summit.US officials and media have cast the Philippines trip as an attempt to patch up Washington’s ties with Manila, which have been strained in recent years amid the Asian nation’s attempts to strike a balance in relations between the US and China. The vice president is expected to lobby President Marcos Jr to shore up relations with Washington in the South China Sea dispute amid escalating Chinese-US tensions over the region, and over Taiwan, which Beijing reiterated on Sunday was an “untouchable red line” which “must be respected.”

Poking the Chinese Dragon

Along with her meeting with Marcos, which should take place on Monday, Harris is expected to fly to the western province of Palawan, situated on the frontline of the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China, for photo op meetings with local officials, Coast Guard members, and fishermen. She is expected to board a large Coast Guard vessel, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, and give a speech on the ‘importance of international law’, unrestricted trade and ‘freedom of navigation’, according to a spokesperson.“China can take the message it wants,” a senior administration official said of the planned Palawan visit.The Philippines’ military assured it would have “no engagement” with Harris during her trip to the province, and suggested “there should be no reason for any of our neighbors to feel threatened.”

Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippines’ ambassador to the US, told reporters that Harris’s trip is meant to demonstrate US support for its allies. “That’s as obvious as you can get, that’s the message they’re trying to impart to the Chinese is that ‘we support our allies like the Philippines on these disputed islands’. This visit is a significant step in showing how serious the United States views this situation now,” he said.

A US official told media last week that Harris’ trip to Asia would include an effort to cast the US as a “better partner” than China for regional nations. She is also expected to “lay out the key principles” around the US “vision for the future of the rules based international economic order,” code words for the Washington-dominated ‘new world order’ that US officials have sought to prop up in recent years amid rising calls for multipolarity from China, Russia, Iran and others.

Strategic Ally

The Philippines is situated in the heart of the South China Sea dispute, and has islands just 200 km from Taiwan. The country is a longtime US ally, but ties have frayed in recent years amid Manila’s refusal to host US missile bases, and thanks to outspoken former president Rodrigo Duterte’s steady stream of vitriolic attacks against American officials, and assertions that his nation’s troops were “not prepared to…commit suicide” in a war with China.US officials have expressed hope that President Marcos, who stepped into office in June, and who was indirectly endorsed by Duterte in elections in May, would be more pliable to the Biden administration’s Asia policy. Marcos has expressed interest in better relations with the US, but promised to maintain an “independent” foreign policy.Manila announced last week that the US would spend $66.5 million to build training and warehouse facilities at three military bases across the country in accordance with a deal signed back in 2014, and hinted that five additional bases may be constructed, pending approval from the defense and foreign ministries. The 2014 agreement, which had been shelved under Duterte, also allows the US to rotate troops into the country for prolonged periods.WorldMarcos Jr Says Fate of Philippines Tied to US as ‘Partner’ as He Bats for American Investment20 September, 16:51 GMTPresident Biden recalled “rocky times” in the US-Philippines relationship while speaking to Marcos on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, stressing that the two countries share a “critical partnership, from our perspective,” and expressed “hope” that Marcos felt “the same way.” The Philippines president said he looked forward to a “continuing partnership and the maintenance of peace in our region.”US-Philippines relations have a long and storied history, with the two countries signing a mutual defense treaty in 1951. During the first half of the 20th century, the islands were a US colony, with Washington purchasing the islands from Spain for $20 million in 1898 (about $718 million, adjusted for inflation), sparking a series of wars, insurgencies and rebellions which saw US forces torching villages, torturing suspected rebels and implementing forced resettlement campaigns. Up to one million Filipinos and 1,500 Americans were killed in the Philippine-American war of 1899-1902.

Trip ‘Makes Sense’

Harris’ trip to Manila on the heels of her Bangkok visit “makes sense” from a strategic perspective, says Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University.”It is not a stand-alone trip. The visit is intended to shore up the US-Philippine treaty alliance, one of five treaty spokes alongside Australia, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Paying more attention to President Marcos Jr is crucial for the US,” the political scientist told Sputnik in an interview.Thitinan believes that Marcos’ personal history with Washington – including the fact that his family took refuge in the US after his father’s regime was toppled in the People Power Revolution in 1986, may play a role in his calculations.

"President Marcos Jr's family benefited from US refuge after his father's downfall. President Marcos Jr is also rebalancing Philippine-US ties after the damage done by President Duterte. The US needs the Philippines to be fully on board its Indo-Pacific Strategy. For President Marcos Jr, rebalancing and moving relatively closer to the US makes strategic sense because of the Philippines' thorny territorial issues with China, particularly in the South China Sea," the scholar said.

For his part, Dr. Chang Ching, a senior research fellow at the Taipei-based Society for Strategic Studies, believes that Harris’ trip will carry more of a “symbolic” “publicity function,” and that while although President Marcos is “less outspoken” than Duterte when it comes to Manila’s ties with Washington and Beijing, the Philippines’ overall policy trajectory shouldn’t shift significantly.”The power balance structure in the Indo-Pacific region has already silently changed to a certain extent and nobody in the region would like to reverse the mega trend. Especially after the devastating withdrawal from Afghanistan and the reluctance to send the US military to get involved in the Russian-Ukraine conflict, U.S. credibility in the Indo-Pacific region has become so negative to many allies and partners. Nonetheless, nobody is willing to be the first one to remind Washington that it should do more to secure the alliance relations in the region. It is only a matter of time for Washington to notice the wind has already changed its direction,” Chang said.Manila, in the observer’s view, has “gradually noticed that it is necessary for it to have more flexibility and to retain a strategic balance in its diplomacy towards Washington and Beijing.” Accordingly, he believes that “no matter how much the United States will invest in its effort [to woo the Philippines] it is impossible to return to a structure similar to the Cold War era,” when Manila was an unshakable US ally.

South China Sea Dispute

The US threw its hat into the South China Sea Dispute in 2010, deploying Navy and Coast Guard ships to the region on ‘freedom of navigation’ missions to challenge Chinese sovereignty claims after Obama Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the region a matter of US “national interest,” and began shoring up bilateral alliances with regional nations. China, which has been exploring a regional dispute resolution mechanism with its South China Sea neighbors since 2002, has called on Washington to butt out and mind its own affairs.

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