In her first official visit to Manila, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris promised on Monday that Washington would invoke a decades-old mutual defense treaty if Philippine forces in the disputed South China Sea came under attack.
Harris made the pledge as the Philippine Navy accused China’s coast guard of “forcibly retrieving” space debris from a Chinese rocket in contested waters near the Spratly Islands.
“In particular as it relates to the Philippines, I will say that we must reiterate always that we stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea,” Harris said while meeting with Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the Malacañang presidential palace here.
She said ties between Manila and Washington were based on mutual security concerns in the Indo-Pacific, including the South China Sea, a mineral-rich waterway that Beijing claims almost in its entirety on historical grounds. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have their own territorial claims.
“An armed attack on the Philippines, armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. Mutual Defense commitments. And that is an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines,” Harris said.
She was referring to a 1951 bilateral treaty that binds both countries to send troops and aid in each other’s military defense in the event of an attack from an external power.
Harris is the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit the longtime U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, where the United States and rival superpower China are competing for influence.
Harris is scheduled on Tuesday to visit Palawan, a Philippine island on the frontline of Manila’s maritime dispute with Beijing. She is expected to board one of the Philippine Coast Guard ships that patrol the South China Sea and give a speech after a briefing on maritime security operations.
Marcos, who was elected president in May, thanked Harris for “the very strong commitment” and assured her of stronger ties between the two nations.
“The situation is rapidly changing. We must evolve to be properly responsive to that situation, but – and so that is why it is very important that we continue to progress, that we continue to strengthen and we – as we redefine those relationships,” Marcos said.
Under his immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, Manila developed warmer ties with Beijing and drifted away from its traditional alliance with Washington.
“I have said many times: I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States. And that really has – that really has come from the very long relationship that we have had with the U.S.,” he said.
As the two met at the presidential palace in Manila, almost 100 protesters took to the streets of the Philippine capital to oppose Harris’ visit and “reject U.S. attempts to establish more military facilities in the Philippines.”
Police blocked them from advancing.
Also on Monday, the Philippine Navy’s Western Command and the Chinese embassy issued competing statements about the incident on Sunday near Manila-occupied Pag-asa (Thitu), an island in the Spratly chain.
A China Coast Guard ship twice blocked a Philippine naval boat before deploying a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB), Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said.
“The … RHIB forcefully retrieved [the] floating object by cutting the towing line attached to the [Philippine Navy] rubber boat,” Carlos said in a statement, adding that the debris was towed back to the China Coast Guard ship.
“The [Philippine] team decided to return to Pag-asa island,” Carlos said.
No Filipino sailor was injured in the incident.
Carlos said the navy reported the incident to the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea “for appropriate action.”
The West Philippine Sea is how Filipinos refer to territories claimed by Manila in the South China Sea.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it is “aware of the incident and awaits the detailed reports from maritime law enforcement agencies.”
The Chinese Embassy, meanwhile, challenged the statement from Carlos.
“Relevant reports are inconsistent with facts,” the embassy said in a statement.
It said the China Coast Guard found the wreckage from a recently launched rocket, at around 8 a.m. Sunday.
“Before the China Coast Guard found the said floating object, some Philippine Navy personnel [had] already retrieved and towed it. After friendly consultation the Philippine side returned the floating object to the Chinese side on the spot,” the embassy said.
“The Chinese side expressed gratitude to the Philippine side. There was no so-called blocking of the course of a Philippine Navy boat and forcefully retrieving the object at the scene.”
Marcos and Harris met days after the Philippine leader discussed maritime disputes with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Bangkok last week, their first face-to-face meeting.
The Filipino and Chinese presidents highlighted the need to finish negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea to “help manage differences and regional tensions,” according to the DFA.