A Philippine archipelago known for tropical vacations will become the center of political attention this week when Vice President Kamala Harris, the senior US official, visits its main island.
Palawan is home to dive resorts as well as a Philippine military base that Harris will visit on Tuesday, according to a senior administration official, taking her to the edge of the South China Sea where China has built military bases — some on claimed islands of the Philippines — in one of the most outward signs of its Ambitions in the Pacific.
Harris met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Monday, with the partners expected to discuss 21 new projects funded by the United States, including more defense installations in the Philippines at locations yet to be revealed – a hint to Beijing that Washington forges closer ties with Manila.
The projects are part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries, which allows U.S. troops to use agreed locations in the Philippines for security drills and joint military training, the White House said in a statement.
But US-Philippines defense ties go deeper than that.
The country was once home to two of the US military’s largest overseas installations, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, which were brought under Filipino control in the 1990s. A mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 remains in effect, providing that both sides would help defend each other if either of them were attacked by a third party.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Harris reiterated Washington’s “unwavering” commitment to the pact. “We must keep emphasizing that we stand with you in defending rules and norms (in the South China Sea),” Harris said, adding that any attack on Philippine ships in the South China Sea would elicit U.S. mutual defense commitments.
Seated next to Harris, Marcos Jr. told reporters, “I’ve said many times that I don’t see a future for the Philippines that doesn’t include the United States and that’s because of the very long relationship with the US.”
Relations between the two countries had crumbled under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who sought closer ties with China during his six-year tenure.
Gregory Poling, a maritime security expert at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US and the Philippines are putting those “rough years” behind them.
Poling said Harris’ visit sends a strong message of support to the Philippines without necessarily threatening Beijing, as Harris will visit Palawan, which is near the South China Sea but is not one of the contested islands.
“The benefit that the US will see in the Philippines in sending a message that ‘We stand together in the South China Sea’ far outweighs any modest frustration this will provoke in Beijing,” Poling said.
Palawan is known for diving and island hopping, but it’s also home to Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, the center of the Philippine military command responsible for defending and patrolling its waters around the Spratly Islands.
The Spratly Islands lie in the southern part of the 1.3 million square mile waterway – which China claims almost all of its sovereignty based on its interpretation of historical maps.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the Philippines occupies nine features in the Spratly Chain, while China occupies seven. But Beijing, which calls the island chain Nanshas, has built and fortified much of its claims in the chain, including building military bases at places like Subi Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef.
In contrast, only one of the Philippine-controlled features has an airstrip at all, Thitu Reef.
Other neighbors around the resource-rich waterway also lay claim to parts of the area, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
In 2016, a tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a naval dispute, concluding that China has no legal basis to claim historical rights to much of the South China Sea.
Despite the ruling, Duterte sought to forge closer ties with Beijing and planned to collaborate on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, a move that divided Filipinos over the legitimacy of enabling China’s ambitions in the disputed territory.
However, the exploration deals were officially terminated in June 2022 due to constitutional challenges and concerns about Philippine sovereignty, former Secretary of State Teddy Locsin Jr. said before leaving office under Duterte.
Since taking office in June, Marcos Jr. has tried to restore ties with the US and resume friendly communications with China, both on economic and security issues.
On the sidelines of last Thursday’s APEC meeting, Marcos Jr. and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed that maritime issues “do not define the entirety of Philippines-China relations,” according to the Philippine spokesman.
“Our foreign policy refuses to fall into the trap of Cold War thinking. We pursue an independent foreign policy guided by our national interest and commitment to peace,” said Marcos Jr.
As a defensive ally of Washington and a competing claimant to Beijing’s wide-ranging territorial claims across the South China Sea, the Philippines are critical to both Washington’s strategy in the region and China’s geopolitical rise.
Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, said Marcos Jr.’s grand task is to strengthen and modernize the country’s defense system — with help from the US — while establishing friendly dialogue with China to improve economic Strengthen relations with China trading partners.
“Philippine President Marcos seems open to the idea of pursuing pragmatic cooperation in the South China Sea without abandoning his longstanding position on South China Sea territorial issues,” Banlaoi said.
During her trip to the Philippines, Harris is expected to make a number of other announcements, including closer US cooperation with Manila on clean energy, cybersecurity, communications and agriculture.
The deals show US intentions in the Pacific region, but a South China Sea expert said Harris’ trip to the military base could potentially anger Beijing to the detriment of the Philippines.
Anna Malindog-Uy, vice president of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), considered the visit a “quite provocative, inflammatory and inflammatory act”.
“It will put my country, the Philippines, in a precarious and awkward position vis-à-vis Beijing,” she said.
“I don’t see that as beneficial for my country. It’s like provoking Beijing at the expense of my country, and I don’t think enlightened and nationalist Filipinos will be happy about that.”