Offbeat: Philippines: Kamala Harris on an island close to waters claimed by China

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the American vice-president Kamala Harris arrived on an island of the Philippines on Tuesday which bathes in waters claimed by China, to show its support for the long-standing ally of the United States and counter the growing Chinese influence in the region.

Mrs. Harris is the highest American official to go to the western island of Palawan, the closest to the Spratleys archipelago, located in the Southern China Sea, where a conflict is played out between Beijing and its neighbors.

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China claims the sovereignty of almost all of this sea and ignores the decision of an international arbitration court according to which its demands have no legal basis.

The Philippines but also Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim certain disputed parts of the Southern China Sea, arousing a lively dispute.

The American Vice-President will meet Fisheries and Coast Guard Filipino. It will underline, in a speech, "the importance of international law, unhindered lawful trade and freedom of navigation," an American official reported to journalists before the visit.

This trip comes after bilateral discussions between Ms. Harris and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr in Manila. Kamala Harris then reaffirmed the "unwavering" commitment of the United States to the Philippines.

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"We are by your side to defend international rules and standards relating to the Southern China Sea," Harris told Mr. Marcos at the start of their interviews in the Presidential Palace of Manila.

"An attack on the armed forces, public ships or Filipino planes in the Southern China Sea would trigger mutual defense engagement," she added. "This is our unwavering commitment to the Philippines."

Relations between the Philippines and the United States have been tense for years under former President Rodrigo Duterte, close to Beijing.

Washington seeks to strengthen its security alliance with Manila under the new presidency, in a context of increasing regional tensions.

This alliance includes a defense treaty and a 2014 pact, known by the Acronym EDCA, which allows the American army to store defense equipment and supplies on several Philippine bases. Under this pact, American troops can access five military bases in the archipelago.

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If the pact had remained at a standstill under the presidency of Mr. Duterte, the United States and the Philippines have since made the wish to accelerate its application against China.

This visit "strengthens the sense of commitment" towards the maritime demands of Manila, estimates Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute of Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea of ​​the University of the Philippines.

But it also underlines the need to implement the EDCA. "The United States cannot properly pay its obligations if it is forced to stay several thousand kilometers away, in Japan or Guam," added the analyst.

Of all the contenders for the Southern China Sea, Beijing has adopted the most aggressive position in recent years.

Tuesday, the Chinese Journal of Chinese Global Times accuses Ms. Harris of "stirring fire on the question of the Southern China Sea". "The Philippines have the right to receive any foreign visitor," writes the newspaper, but "bilateral exchanges must not be made to the detriment of the interests of a third country, as well as regional peace and stability", according to an editorial.

On the eve of Ms. Harris' visit to Palawan, a senior Philippine Navy accused the Chinese coast guard of seizing "the strength" of a rocket that landed in the Spratleys. Beijing, who built militarized artificial islands in the archipelago, insisted that the seizure had taken place after a "friendly consultation".

AMJ/PBT/CWL/CHV/JND/CN

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