MANILA: US Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in the Philippines on Sunday for a visit that experts said is aimed at strengthening the old alliance between Manila and Washington amid high geopolitical tensions in the region.
Harris is on a three-day trip to the Philippines, making her the highest-ranking American official to visit the Southeast Asian country since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office on June 30. It follows a series of high-level engagements between the two countries, including Marcos’ inaugural talks with Biden in New York in September.
Harris’ trip comes as Washington appears to seek a revival of ties with Manila to counter China’s growing influence in the region, showcasing a sharp turnaround compared to the days of former President Rodrigo Duterte, who distanced the two nations and embraced a Beijing-friendly direction.
The visit also comes amid China’s increased pressure in the disputed South China Sea where the Philippines has rival claims and Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance toward Taiwan, the self-governing island China regards as its own.
Marcos, who is scheduled to hold talks with Harris on Monday, said the trip signifies growth in Philippine-US relations.
“I have always said that the relationship between the United States and the Philippines must continue to evolve. And it will be that,” Marcos told reporters on Saturday.
When it comes to security and defense in the Asia-Pacific region, Marcos said “it really has to be a joint response.”
The Philippines and the US have a Mutual Defense Treaty, a 70-year-old pact stipulating that Manila and Washington would support each other in the event that either were attacked by an external party.
Harris’ visit is “symbolic,” according to Renato De Castro, international studies expert and professor at Manila-based De La Salle University.
“It’s symbolizing of course that the United States supports us,” De Castro said. “We’re a treaty ally of the United States that happened to also be in the frontline against China because we are involved, we are one of the claimant states in the South China Sea, where China of course is affecting its maritime expansion.”
Marcos’ administration is seeking to balance its diplomacy with both the US and China, De Castro said.
“The policy of this administration is to find the balance: maintaining our alliance with the United States but continuously engaging China economically with the hope that we could also avail of the benefits generated by China’s emergence as the second-largest economy.”
Stephen Cutler, a former FBI legal attache, told Arab News that the US can help elevate the Philippines’ role on the world stage.
“What I would like to see (Harris) focus on is the US and the Philippines working together, to help the Philippines grow in its own capacity and capabilities and helping the Philippines to take its rightful place on the world stage, and that will actually have a benefit to all countries,” Cutler said.
When it comes to the Philippines’ relations with the US and China, Marcos has “to walk a tightrope,” he added.
“I think he is doing alright so far, he is doing pretty well on doing that tight(rope) walk,” Cutler said. “He doesn’t have a subservient mindset to either nation, but he understands that both nations — the US and China — can help the Philippines achieve its goals and objectives.”