A senior US administration official told Reuters on Tuesday, that US Vice President Kamala Harris will visit the Philippine islands of Palawan that lie on the edge of the disputed South China Sea. US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met each other just a few days back and now this announcement is likely to anger Beijing.
When Harris visits the islands next Tuesday, she will become the highest-ranking American official to visit the island chain. China has dredged the sea floor to build harbors and airstrips on the Spratlys. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the area.
China claims some territories in the waters off Palawan and much of the South China Sea, citing domestic historical maps. But an international arbitration ruling in 2016, however, found no legal basis for the Chinese claims. The South China Sea contains massive oil and gas deposits and ship-borne trade worth $5 trillion is conducted from here each year.
In Palawan, Harris will meet with “residents, civil society leaders and representatives of the Philippines Coast Guard,” the senior administration official said.
The official added that the trip will reinforce the administration’s “commitment to stand with our Philippine ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea, supporting maritime livelihoods and countering illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.”
On Tuesday, Manila had announced that Washington would spend $66.5 million for training and warehouse facilities at three of its military bases there under a 2014 joint security deal.
This will be Harris’s second trip to Asia in three months. It aims to discourage aggressive steps by China, including in self-ruled Taiwan. She will also stop in Thailand for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting.
During her last trip to the region, Harris accused China of actions to “coerce and intimidate” neighbours.
However, South China Sea expert Gregory Poling told Reuters that instead of angering Beijing, the visit could send a strong message to the Philippines since she is not visiting a disputed territory.
“It will be reassuring to the Philippines by sending a clear signal that, even with Ukraine and Taiwan center stage, the United States still recognizes the South China Sea as central to the future of the U.S.-Philippine alliance,” said Poling. He is the director of the Southeast Asia Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.