MANILA – Vice President Kamala Harris, the highest-ranking United States official to visit Palawan, reiterated on Tuesday their commitment to the Philippines as its longstanding ally.
Harris' visit to the island is highly symbolic, given its proximity to the contested Spratly Islands.
In a speech delivered onboard the BRP Teresa Magbanua in Puerto Princesa City, Harris explained that Washington DC, like the broader international community, has a "profound stake" in the future of the region.
"America's prosperity relies on the billions of dollars that flow through these waters every day. And we are proud to work with you in your mission," she said, addressing the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). "As an ally, the United States stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea."
China and other neighboring states lay competing claims over Spratly Islands, which include the Kalayaan Group of Islands.
In a 2016 arbitral ruling, a Hague-based court invalidated China's nine-dash line covering majority of the South China Sea.
Harris repeated that the decision is "legally binding and must be respected."
"We will continue to rally our allies and partners against unlawful and irresponsible behavior. When the international rules-based order is threatened somewhere, it is threatened everywhere," she added.
Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Global Times, meanwhile, accused Harris of "fanning conflicts surrounding the South China Sea."
In a separate statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Beijing sees nothing wrong with American interaction with states as long as it is "not damaging to other countries' interests."
On the eve of Harris' Palawan stop, the Western Command accused the Chinese Coast Guard of "forcefully" retrieving a debris fished out by Philippine Navy personnel off Pag-asa Island.
The Chinese belied the accusation, saying the Filipino side returned the object "after friendly consultation".
Tokyo, for its part, sees Harris' remarks as a reflection of synergy between Japan, the US and the Philippines.
"US Vice President Kamala Harris' visit to Japan-made BRP Teresa Magbanua stationed in Palawan is a milestone for US-Philippines-Japan cooperation," Japanese Ambassador Kazuhiko Koshikawa said in a statement Tuesday. "May we witness more maritime collaborations like this as we navigate for a free and open Indo-Pacific."
In explaining why the vessel was chosen to host part of Harris' visit, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) cited Washington DC's expanded cooperation with the PCG, particularly through capacity-building programs.
"The BRP Teresa Magbanua is one of the two flagship Multi-Role Response Vessels that are part of the PCG's modernization program," the DFA said.
"It stands as a concrete example of the commitment of the previous administration and our Japanese partners to transform the PCG into a capable and reliable service that can enforce all applicable laws within Philippine waters, conduct maritime security operations, safeguard life and property at sea, and protect the maritime environment and resources," it added.
Harris also announced a fresh USD7.5 million funding to boost the capacity of Philippine maritime law enforcement agencies; a new initiative to upgrade PCG's vessel traffic management system; and the Quad's Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness initiative.
Meanwhile, Department of National Defense (DND) officer-in-charge Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr. met US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III for the second time at the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Retreat and 9th ADMM-Plus in Cambodia on Tuesday.
In a statement, DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said the two top officials reaffirmed the Philippines-US alliance to be on a very strong footing, as manifested in the recent bilateral meeting between Harris and President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. in Manila
“Other discussions during the meeting were the current regional security outlook and bilateral initiatives to deepen further the defense partnership between the Philippines and the US,” he added. (with Priam Nepomuceno/PNA)