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Harris rebukes China on visit to Philippines

The vice president traveled to the South China Sea, a region where Beijing has flexed its muscles.

Vice President Harris tours the village of Tagburos in the Philippines on Tuesday. (Haiyun Jiang/AFP/Getty Images)
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PALAWAN — Vice President Harris said Tuesday that the U.S. stands with the Philippines “in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea,” delivering a sharp rebuke to China just days after meeting with President Xi Jinping.

Harris made the remarks as she became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit this archipelago bordering the contested South China Sea. The Philippines has long complained of the Chinese overfishing and other aggression in the area.

“Communities like this have seen the consequences when foreign vessels enter Philippine waters and illegally deplete the fishing stock, when they pollute the ocean and destroy the marine ecosystem,” Harris said.

Her stop in Palawan, an island chain known as a tropical vacation spot, risked further raising tensions with Beijing, at a moment when the U.S. and China are at odds over a range of issues.

Harris’s outreach to the Philippines is part of a broader connection the Biden administration is seeking to forge with Asian countries to counter China’s influence. Biden and Xi last week held their first face-to-face meeting since Biden became president, and while the session appeared cordial, the tensions have hardly faded.

Harris, during the nearly four-hour visit to Palawan that wrapped up her week-long trip to Asia, met with children and women in the small fishing village of Tagburos and greeted Philippine coast guard members aboard their largest ship.

After schoolchildren greeted the vice president with a dance performance and painting of the local boats, she spoke with scientists who monitor marine life and women entrepreneurs who depend on the rich fishing ground of the highly trafficked waterway.

Harris then toured the Teresa Magbanua, a newly commissioned cutter used by the U.S. and Philippines for joint exercises, telling officers aboard the ship that they were on the front line of “standing up for international rules-based order.”

“Each and every day, 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,” she said. “The United States and the broader international community have a profound stake in the future of the region.”

The Philippines has lodged diplomatic protests against China’s maritime activities in the South China Sea region, as local fishing communities have reported dwindling fish availability and displacement from traditional fishing grounds amid hostilities from the Chinese coast guard.

In 2016, Manila scored a victory when an international tribunal ruled that China had no legal basis for its sweeping claims in the South China Sea, but Beijing has disregarded the ruling. In her speech aboard the Philippine ship, Harris called the ruling “legally binding.”

Harris undertook the delicate diplomatic mission at a time when tensions are rising over trade, Taiwan, human rights and other matters.

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“We stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea,” Harris said Monday, addressing Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as reporters looked on. “An armed attack on the Philippines armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments.”

Marcos, the son of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, welcomed the support.

“With the upheavals that we are seeing — not only in the region, but especially in the region — these partnerships become even more important,” he said.

Also Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of a summit of defense ministers in Cambodia, according to the Pentagon. Austin stressed the importance of keeping lines of communication open and said the U.S. is not seeking to change the status quo on Taiwan.

But he raised concerns with Wei about “increasingly dangerous behavior” of Chinese military aircraft in the Indo-Pacific, according to the Pentagon, saying it could soon cause an accident and adding that the U.S. will continue to exercise its right to maneuver in international waters.

Harris has been seeking to raise her political and diplomatic profile after two years as vice president. Biden has signaled that he will announce a reelection bid early next year but has not made a final decision, and Harris is seeking to build a base as his heir apparent in the face of potential Democratic rivals.

The visit to Palawan concluded a week-long trip in Thailand and the Philippines for Harris, who met with other world leaders, including Xi, at a two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok that focused on supply-chain and security issues. On the sidelines of APEC, Harris spoke to business leaders about the U.S. role in the economic development of the region.

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She also convened an emergency meeting of the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada after North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that landed near Japan, condemning the launch as a “brazen violation of multiple U.N. security resolutions.”

In her conversation with Xi, Harris said she emphasized the importance of keeping “open lines of communication available,” adding that it echoed the three-hour-long discussion Biden had with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

“We welcome competition, but we do not seek conflict,” she told reporters.

Complicating matters, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the disputed area.

Marcos joked to Harris that she was visiting Palawan for a leisure trip. “I’m sure you’re just going to the resorts and the beaches,” he said. Harris responded with a laugh, saying, “That is not the life I’ve chosen these days.”

Harris announced Monday that the Biden administration is eyeing additional locations under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that allows the United States access to Philippine military bases, such as Palawan’s Antonio Bautista Air Base. The White House also said it would negotiate a civilian nuclear pact between the United States and the Philippines.

Asked whether Beijing might see Harris’s trip to Palawan as a provocation, Marcos downplayed that possibility.

“It’s very clearly on the Philippine territory,” he told reporters at APEC, according to local reports. “I don’t think it will cause problems.”