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U.S. Vice President Harris urged regional countries to defend sovereignty in the South China Sea

U.S. Vice President Harris met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Manila on November 21, 2022. (Reuters)
U.S. Vice President Harris met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Manila on November 21, 2022. (Reuters)

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday (November 22) urged countries to defend the territorial integrity and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which is challenged by China; He said Washington would push for an international campaign against “irresponsible behavior” in the disputed waters.

Harris did not mention China by name, but when she stressed that the United States would support the Philippines as a treaty ally “in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea,” she was apparently referring to Beijing.

She spoke from a Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel. The patrol ship docked at Puerto Princesa on the western island of Palawan province, which sits on the edge of disputed waters. The highly symbolic visit is the final stop on Harris’ two-day visit that began Monday in Manila. She held talks with Philippine President Marcos Jr. on Monday.

She listed the far-reaching stakes of the United States and the international community in the region, particularly in the busy waters of the South China Sea, and called for broad efforts to ensure unimpeded commercial access and freedom of navigation and overflight in disputed waters.

“We must uphold the principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, unimpeded and lawful commercial flows, and peaceful resolution of disputes,” Harris said. “

We will continue to unite our allies and partners against illegal and irresponsible behavior,” she said. “When the rules-based international order is threatened somewhere, the international order is similarly threatened everywhere.”

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A new confrontation broke out before her visit to Palawan. The Philippine Navy claimed that a Chinese coast guard ship forcibly recovered fragments of a Chinese rocket as Filipino sailors towed the rocket debris toward a Philippine-controlled island.

Marcos Jr. did not elaborate to reporters that he was inclined to file a diplomatic protest with China over the incident. He added that he wanted clarification because China denied forcibly seizing the pieces.

The South China Sea, involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei, is seen as a flashpoint for Asia and a delicate fault line in U.S.-China competition in the region.

In talks with Marcos Jr. on Monday, Harris reiterated Washington’s commitment to defend the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The treaty requires allies to help defend any side under attack.

“An armed attack on the Armed Forces of the Philippines, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea will trigger a mutual defense commitment to the United States,” Harris told Marcos Jr.

Philippine President Marcos Jr. thanked Harris, saying “this partnership has become even more important given the turmoil in the region and beyond.”

In Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s main city, Harris visited a small fishing community and spoke with impoverished villagers about the impact of illegal fishing on their livelihoods. She was welcomed by the children dancing and talking to women drying fish in the seaside sun. “This is my souvenir,” she jokingly told one of the women, holding a piece of dried fish. The proud villager joked that the vice president could take all their products home.

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The United States will provide an additional $7.5 million in assistance to Philippine maritime law enforcement agencies to improve their capabilities to combat illegal fishing, conduct maritime surveillance, and assist in search and rescue efforts, including operations in the South China Sea, according to a statement issued by Vice President Harris’s office.

The Philippine Coast Guard will also receive additional assistance from the United States to upgrade its vessel traffic management system to improve maritime safety. According to Harris’s office, the Philippines is now also able to receive real-time surveillance data to be able to detect and combat illegal maritime activities in a program of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is an informal strategic bloc involving the United States, India, Japan, and Australia.

The United States has no claims to the strategic waterway, but because an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes through it each year, the United States says freedom of navigation and overflight is in the national interest.

In March, U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander John M. Adm. John C. Aquilino told The Associated Press that China has completely militarized at least three of the several islands it has built in disputed waters and equipped them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, lasers, and jamming equipment; China’s moves have become increasingly aggressive, threatening all countries operating nearby.

In Sunday’s incident in the most contentious Spratly Islands, Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, commander of the Philippine military’s Western Command, said a Chinese coast guard vessel twice intercepted a civilian vessel manned by Philippine Navy personnel before seizing debris it towed away from the imperial capital island.

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China denied any forcible seizure and said the debris was handed over by Philippine troops after “friendly consultations.” China confirmed the debris came from a recent Chinese rocket launch.

Chinese coast guard vessels have in the past prevented Philippine supply ships from delivering supplies to Philippine troops in disputed waters, but seizing items in the possession of another country’s military would constitute an even more unrestrained act.

China warned Washington not to interfere in its so-called Asian dispute and said U.S. Navy and Air Force patrols and combat exercises in disputed waters were militarizing the South China Sea.

In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on China to abide by a 2016 arbitration ruling that nullified Beijing’s claims to territorial waters over the vast waters of the South China Sea. China rejected the decision.

(This article is based on an Associated Press report.) )

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