US Vice President Kamala Harris shakes hands with Philippines President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, November 21, 2022. Photo: Twitter / NDTV

MANILA – US Vice President Kamala Harris, fresh off a conciliatory meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit in Bangkok, decried Beijing without directly naming the Asian powerhouse for acts of “intimidation and coercion” against smaller claimant states in the South China Sea during her maiden trip to the Philippines.

Harris’ highly-anticipated speech was delivered before Philippine Coast Guard members stationed in Palawan, the westernmost Philippine province that juts deeply into the hotly contested maritime area that analysts believe would quickly go kinetic in any future armed conflict between the US and China.

“Communities like this have seen the consequences when foreign vessels enter Philippine waters and illegally deplete the fishing stock, when they harass and intimidate local fishers, when they pollute the ocean and destroy the marine ecosystem,” she added in thinly-veiled criticism of China’s expanding para-military footprint and contentious activities in sovereign waters of neighboring Southeast Asian nations.

The US vice president’s high-profile visit and push to expand a key joint military pact raises the stakes for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who is delicately trying to maintain economically fruitful relations with China while fortifying strategic ties with the US and its regional allies.

Marcos assured Harris that the Philippines was committed to the countries’ longstanding alliance, saying in public remarks before their meeting on Monday: “I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States.”

The Philippines arguably needs the US to shore up its maritime security vis-à-vis China.

In 2019, a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed into and almost drowned dozens of Filipino fishermen straddling resource-rich waters near the disputed Reed Bank in the South China Sea. An armada of Chinese militia vessels have repeatedly surrounded Philippine-occupied islands in the area in recent years.

One authoritative study showed that China’s illegal fishing activities within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) have cost the Southeast Asian country 33 billion pesos (US$650 million) a year.

This handout satellite imagery taken on March 23, 2021 from Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometers west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea. Chinese vessels gathered near a disputed reef in the South China Sea are “fishing boats” sheltering from poor weather, the foreign ministry said March 22, a day after the Philippines described their presence as an incursion. Photo: Handout / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies / AFP

During her visit, Harris said the Philippines now receives near real-time data from a new satellite monitoring program launched and maintained jointly by the US, Australia, Japan and India aimed at improving transparency in the region’s waters.

“[We] have stepped up efforts to provide countries in the region with a wider and more accurate picture of their territorial waters,” Harris said.

Her visit builds on a recent rapid revitalization of the Philippine-US military alliance under Marcos Jr, who has largely discarded his predecessor’s strong lean towards Beijing over Washington, including through a threat to scrap a longstanding visiting forces agreement with the US.

With the Philippines emerging as a key node in the Biden administration’s “integrated deterrence” strategy of containing China, including in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, Washington has largely refrained from publicly criticizing Manila’s human rights record, an often heated sticking point under the previous Duterte administration.

Shortly before the US vice president’s visit, Philippine authorities accused China of coercively seizing an unidentified floating object off the coast of the Manila-controlled Thitu Island in the Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

When Philippine naval forces approached the debris, a Chinese coast guard vessel numbered 5203 reportedly “blocked [their] pre-plotted course twice,” according to a Philippine military official, and then “forcefully retrieved said floating object by cutting the towing line.”

According to the Philippine Space Agency, the debris was likely a Chinese heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Long March 5B rocket, which fell back to earth earlier this month. Chinese authorities were likely intent on denying the Philippines, a US ally, the chance to retrieve the sensitive technology but the episode also underscored the festering disputes in the vital maritime zone.

Marcos Jr tried to play down Harris’ visit to Palawan amid renewed tensions with China in the contested waters. During his visit to Bangkok, Thailand, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Marcos Jr was adamant about the positive trajectory of Philippine-China relations.

“No, I don’t see why they should. She is in the Philippines and she is visiting another part of the Philippines,” Marcos Jr told reporters when asked whether Harris’ visit to the strategic province would trigger tensions with Beijing.

“And of course, it is the closest area to the South China Sea, but it’s very clearly on Philippine territory. So, I don’t think there should be – I don’t think it will cause problems,” he added.

The APEC summit marked the first time Marcos Jr personally met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. During their talks on the sidelines of the mega-event, the two leaders projected optimism about the state of bilateral relations in spite of bubbling and lingering maritime disputes. 

Xi and Marcos Jr met for the first time in Bangkok on the sidelines of the APEC summit. Image: Office of the Press Secretary

“Marcos Jr stressed his consistent view that relations between the two countries should not be defined by maritime issues and that both sides may further enhance communication in this regard,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said. The two sides also agreed to continue consultations on reviving joint energy exploration talks in the disputed areas, which were suspended under the previous Duterte administration.

The Marcos Jr administration also reiterated its “One China” policy recognizing Beijing as the official representative of greater China, including Taiwan, in light of rising tensions in the area.

“The bilateral meetings are really just a kind of getting-to-know-you and that was the same with our meeting,” said Marcos Jr, according to a statement released by the Malacañang Palace. The Filipino president also expressed his intent to visit China soon, which would likely be his first major state visit outside of Southeast Asia.  

“So, I am looking forward to January and the state visit to China,” Marcos Jr added, following in the steps of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who visited Beijing ahead of traditional allies in Washington and Tokyo in 2016.

Throughout his first few months in office, Marcos Jr has repeatedly referred to Beijing as a major economic partner and kickstarted renewed negotiations over big-ticket Chinese infrastructure projects in the Philippines. Unlike his predecessor, however, the new Filipino president has actively welcomed expanded military cooperation with the West, especially the US.

The Philippines and US have agreed to expand joint military activities by as much as 60%, to as many as 500 next year. Specifically, they have agreed to dramatically expand the number of troops participating in major joint wargames such as Balikatan, Salaknib, and Kamandag, where US and Filipino troops, along with like-minded powers Japan and Australia, have been preparing for potential armed contingencies in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

Crucially, the Marcos Jr administration has also expressed its openness to doubling the number of bases open to US forces under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Accordingly, the Biden administration has allocated as much as $82 million to developing basic infrastructure in strategically-located bases in the western and northern areas of the Philippines, including in the Palawan, Pampanga, Isabela and Cagayan regions.

According to a White House statement, “This investment, and forthcoming additional allotment, will complete 21 projects, enabling the United States and the Philippines to build lasting security infrastructure to promote long-term modernization, build a credible mutual defense posture, maintain humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities, and enhance the strength of the alliance.”

During her meeting with Marcos Jr, Harris reiterated America’s mutual defense treaty obligations in the event of armed clashes with a third party in the South China Sea.

Specifically, she “reaffirmed that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”

The Biden administration is also assisting ongoing efforts to enhance the Philippines’ own domain awareness and maritime security capabilities through, inter alia, “expanding Coast Guard partnership and maritime law enforcement cooperation, which supports the lives and livelihoods of the Filipino people.”

Philippine and US Marines during a surface-to-air missile simulation as part of exercise Kamandag joint exercises on October 10, 2019. Photo: Lance Cpl. Brienna Tuck / US Marine Corps

During her visit, Harris also sought to reassure critics who have accused Washington of soft-pedaling on human rights issues under the Marcos Jr administration. Neither US President Biden nor any of his top deputies, have publicly criticized the Philippines’ democratic credentials in recent months.

Last month, broadcast journalist and prominent Marcos Jr government critic Percival Mabasa was gunned down in front of his house in Metro-Manila, marking the most high-profile assassination of a Filipino journalist in recent years. Under president Rodrigo Duterte, thousands of drug suspects were also killed under suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile, as many as 211 activists were also killed in the past six years.

The Marcos Jr administration has yet to condemn the spate of extrajudicial killings under Duterte, whose daughter Sara Duterte, now serves as vice president. During a meeting with human rights activists on Monday, Harris expressed solidarity and vowed to support their cause.

“So when I think about the fight for human rights, I think about it in the context of what it requires for the fighters. And one of the things that requires is that you remember, you are not alone,” said the US vice president without clarifying how exactly Washington will promote democracy and rights in the Philippines.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian