By ALFRED GABOT and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE
Editor in Chief and Managing Editor
MANILA/WASHINGTON/PALAWAN — Following vows by United States President Joseph Biden Jr. and then President Barack Obama and their secretaries of defense and state of “iron-clad commitment to the defense of the Philippines,” US Vice President Kamala Harris, this time while inside Malacanang, made clear before President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. himself that commitment, saying that the US will act in case the Philippines is attacked in accordance with the mutual defense treaty of the two countries.
VP Harris, accompanied by US Ambassador to Manila MaryKay Clarkson and other US officials, called on President Marcos after meeting Vice President Sara Duterte and before flying to Puerto Princesa City in Palawan and eventually to Los Angeles, California, and reaffirmed the longstanding ties between her country and the Philippines,
Harris, a former US senator and attorney general in California which hosts one of the biggest population of Filipinos, told President Marcos, Vice President Duterte and Filipino officials with him during the call, that any armed attack on the Philippine military, as well as the country’s public vessels and aircraft “would invoke the US mutual defense commitment.”
“We must reiterate always that we stand with you in defense, in international rules and norms in the South China Sea,” Harris told Marcos as she assured him of their two countries’ relationship to address concerns on security in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea.
Harris’ pledge and Marcos response were aired on television live from the Malacanang Palace.
“When we think about what is happening in this region, we know that there are so many opportunities for us to strengthen our relationship. But the basis of our relationship is based on mutual commitments to international rules and norms and upholding those in all the ways that we know,” she added.
The White House said the funding will strengthen the agencies’ capabilities to counter illegal fishing, improve maritime domain awareness, and provide search and rescue support, including in the disputed South China Sea.
“Pending Congressional notification,” the US will back the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in upgrading and expanding its vessel traffic management system for improved maritime safety and environmental monitoring, the White House added in a statement.
The White House called Harris’ trip to Palawan “historic,” as she became the highest-ranking US official to visit the province, known as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier, and near the tension-filled West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.
In Palawan, Harris said in a speech on board the Philippine Coast Guard lead patrol his BRP Teresa Magbanua that the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration decision rejecting China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and upholding the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the area must be respected by all nations.
During her speech, Harris was flanked by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) personnel, the frontline responders against aggression and incursions in the West Philippine Sea as well as US and Philippine officials. Harris also visited a fishing village in Palawan to ascertain their needs and extend assistance.
“The United States is proud of our longstanding ties with the people of the Philippines. I am here in Palawan to underscore the importance of our partnership in order to create economic opportunities, protect coastal ecosystems, maintain peace and stability, and uphold international rules and norms here in the South China Sea and around the world. To the Philippine Coast Guard, you are on the frontlines of standing up for the international rules-based order,” said Harris.
“As you patrol these waters, you uphold the rules and norms that are vital to the prosperity of the Filipino people, and people around the world. As the United States has long made clear: We support the 2016 ruling of the UN Arbitral Tribunal, which delivered a unanimous and final decision firmly rejecting China’s expansive South China Sea maritime claims. The tribunal’s decision is legally-binding, and must be respected,” she stressed.
Upholding international rules and norms, Harris said, is tantamount to supporting the lives and livelihoods of people throughout the region.
“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.
“The United States– and the broader international community –have a profound stake in the future of this 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. As an ally, the United States stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea,” she added.
While The Hague-based Arbitration court already junked China’s expansive nine-dash theory claiming the entirety of South China Sea islands, Beijing has refused to recognize the Philippines’ unprecedented legal victory.
Instead or recognizing the ruling, Beijing engaged in massive reclamation of reefs and shoals and built airfields, ports and other military installations on them. At the same time, China has stationed hundreds of warship, China Coast Guard vessels and militia boats disguised as fishing boats, some of them within the Philippine territory and exclusive economic zone and prevented Filipino fishermen from fishing in their traditional fishing grounds.
Harris declared that the defiance of The Hague court ruling and other laws have huge consequences for the communities. She did not identify China in her speech.
“The vitality of [fishing] communities is at risk. They have seen the consequences when foreign vessels enter Philippine waters and illegally deplete the fishing stock, when they harass and intimidate local fishers, when they pollute the ocean, and destroy the marine ecosystem. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated, fishing are far too common across the world’s oceans. It presents a direct threat to coastal ecosystems and economies,” she said.
Meanwhile, Washington also said the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will launch a new initiative — including a grant to a local organization — to support traditional livelihoods and sustainable fishing practices in the country.
It said this also aims to strengthen food security and advance the conservation of marine ecosystems in the South China Sea that are vulnerable to development and climate change.
In a statement, the White House also reiterated that “the US commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad.”
In the same statement from the White House, the US said it is committed to strengthening its economic and investment relationship with the Philippines.
Harris arrived in the Philippines on Sunday flying in from Bangkok, Thailand where she attended the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) summit. She is the first high-ranking US official to visit Manila since former President Donald Trump visited the country in 2017.
She was accompanied by her husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who led the US delegation to the inauguration of President Marcos on June 30 at the National Museum of Fine Arts, formerly Legislative Building.
US State Secretary Anthony Blinken also visited the Philippines in August.
Blinken’s visit showed the Biden administration’s “commitment to stand with our Philippine ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the SCS, supporting maritime livelihoods and countering illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.”
The White House also announced new initiatives to strengthen its partnership and alliance with the Philippines.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the initiatives represent concrete deliverables following the bilateral meeting of President Marcos and President Biden on the sidelines of the 77th UN General Assembly last September.
“The Philippines and United States agree on the importance of strengthening the economic security of the Philippines so that we might have the capacity to meet both our individual and collective challenges,” the DFA said in a statement.
“We hope to continue the extensive bilateral engagements between our two countries with a view to achieving tangible, relevant and substantial outcomes in support of the economic development objectives of the Philippines,” it added.
Based on a White House briefer, Harris was to launch the initiatives throughout her Manila and Palawan trip:
— Energy policy dialogue, a high-level platform for the two nations to develop new forms of energy cooperation, including on short and long-term energy planning, offshore wind development, and grid stability and power transmission
— 123 Agreement Negotiations for Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation
— Project to support critical mineral supply chains
— Construction of a geothermal power in Mindanao
— Opening of a US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) office to help US companies and financiers invest and support the energy and infrastructure needs of the Philippines
— Indo-Pacific Smart and Secure Ports Development
— Food security dialogue between the US Department of Agriculture, with participation from USAID and the US Department of State
— Issuance of a US$20 million US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) loan to enable Agri Exim Global Philippines Inc., a local processor of organic coconuts into derivative products, to grow its processing facilities in the Philippines
— Expansion of access to reliable and secure 5G networks
— USAID support on the launch of the first Low Earth Orbit Satellite Broadband Service in Southeast Asia, in partnership with SpaceX Starlink
— Providing digital opportunities to small businesses, empowering highly skilled workers, and investing in women entrepreneurs
Human rights, health security
— US’ plan to support the Philippines-UN Joint Programme for Human Rights
— Elevation of the US-Philippines health security partnership, building on its more than USD46 million in assistance for the Philippines
— Healthcare for Veterans
— Program to combat the online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) and support OSEC survivors in the Philippines