US Vice President Kamala Harris’ swing to Puerto Princesa, Palawan today, November 22, as part of her Philippine state visit is a bold move on the part of the United States to address China’s continuing aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea.
Vice President Harris’ visit is significant, her being the highest-ranking US official to ever set foot on Palawan soil, the veritable ground zero of a long-running maritime territorial dispute between China and the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea.
The United States has repeatedly committed to stand by its ally the Philippines in the territorial dispute, asserting its commitment to a rules-based order in the entire South China Sea including freedom of commerce and navigation. China meanwhile continues to impose its will around the area, discarding international norms in boldly asserting its own sovereignty in the maritime territory. Over the years, it had unilaterally taken over shallow reefs to transform them into island military fortifications, disregarding international norms.
To be sure, the State Department had carefully curated VP Harris’ Palawan itinerary to not include one along the line of a direct armed forces briefing on the West Philippine Sea situation, opting instead that she touches base with the local station of the Philippine Coast Guard that plays a key role in the Manila’s efforts to physically assert its own territorial claims around Kalayaan Islands, Palawan’s 23rd municipality. The US has funded maritime capability programs in the Philippines including the National Coast Watch System program implemented by the Philippine Coast Guard which includes among its tasks the monitoring of the country’s West Philippine Sea flank.
The incident at Pag Asa Island last Sunday involving the Chinese Coast Guard forcibly taking away a piece of space debris from a tug boat of the Philippine Coast Guard that had found it and was towing it towards the island showcased China’s continued aggressive behavior in the area. Beijing on Monday, a day before Harris was to travel to Palawan, issued a statement indirectly accusing Palawan authorities of lying by claiming that the Philippine Coast Guard crew voluntarily gave up the recovered rocket debris after a “friendly” negotiation in the high seas. The local and international media that have parachuted to Palawan to cover Harris’ visit awaits how the vice president will address the incident if and when it props up during her visit.
Still the bigger story on Harris’ visit is the unveiling of the Biden administration’s support package to the Philippines to deal with China as it repeatedly tries to bully it into submission. According to a media brief released by the White House today, Harris previously met with Southeast Asian leaders in Washington, DC where she had announced a $60 million package for new regional maritime initiatives. During her trip, Harris is expected to provide details of Washington’s fresh support to the Philippines capacity building in maritime enforcement, among other similar programs.
The White House stated in a media brief that Harris’ Palawan visit demonstrates the Biden administration’s “commitment to stand with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea, promoting marine conservation, supporting maritime livelihoods, and countering illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.”
The visit certainly puts some pressure on Beijing to account for its recent behavior in the West Philippine Sea, including the latest incident in Pag Asa. Meanwhile, latest reports coming from local officials of Kalayaan of Chinese Coast Guard vessels frequently patrolling the area close to Pag Asa are expected to further raise tension in the area.