WHEN reporters asked if he thought US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Palawan this week might pique China, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the other day in Bangkok: “No, I don’t see why it should. She is in the Philippines, and she is visiting another part of the Philippines. 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 it will cause problems.”
Marcos’ statements were a remarkable display of naiveté, sarcasm or maybe condescension toward media. Reporters should have thrown back to Marcos their own sarcasm: “Will she go to El Nido, Amanpulo or just the world-famous Underground River?”
C’mon now, Harris’ visit to Palawan tomorrow is not just a visit to “another part of the Philippines” by just another US official. It will raise the geopolitical temperature in our region. It will be a geopolitical tremor, and thus was headline news in Western newspapers’ foreign sections.
A Reuters article filed in Washington, D.C. linked the visit to the Spratly Islands dispute, which it inarguably is:
“Harris will be the highest-ranking American official to visit the island chain adjacent to the Spratly Islands. China has dredged the sea floor to build harbors and airstrips on the Spratlys, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
“The trip will show 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,” Reuters quoted an unnamed senior Biden administration official.
Another headline for an article by another international media; “Days after Biden’s face-to-face meeting with Xi Jinping, Harris is making a rare trip to a South China Sea hotspot.”
Jose Manuel Romualdez, our ambassador to the US pointed to another meaning of the US vice president’s visit by disclosing to Reuters — a big booboo — that Marcos and Harris in their meeting “will touch on the Taiwan situation.” Will Harris tell Marcos: “We expect your full cooperation in turning over the Palawan military base for our use when we fight China over Taiwan?”
Indeed, Harris’ visit to Palawan is being undertaken barely a month after Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared at the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress that the takeover of Taiwan would be the party’s priority in his third, most probably last term. Xi said in his speech at the Congress that the “wheels of history” are turning toward Taiwan’s return to China.
And when communists say that “history” will be doing this or that, it more often than not means that it is the party that is history’s instrument. Some analysts fear that China’s takeover of Taiwan would take place sooner than later to take advantage of the US and the West’s deep involvement in defending Ukraine from Russia. This has so far cost the Americans $20 billion at a a time that it needs all the money it can raise to repair its severely Covid-damaged economy.
Can’t-imagine-the-Philippines without the US
However, Harris’ visit is a message to Beijing: “With that sonofabitch Duterte now out of power, the Philippines is again under our wing with this I-cannot-imagine-the Philippines-without-the-US president, Under the agreement we hoodwinked President Aquino 3rd into agreeing in April 2014, we can quickly convert the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan facing Taiwan as our advanced military base, its 2,600-meter airstrip capable of being used by our biggest military and cargo planes. So stop dreaming of taking over Taiwan.”
The Antonio Bautista Air Base is one of five euphemistically termed “agreed locations” — Philippine military camps, that is — under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) the Aquino 3rd government handed over to the US in 2014 to use as it pleases.
Under EDCA, the US military, at any time it wishes, can convert these five camps into their bases, where they can stockpile their war materiel, including war planes, and station their troops for quick deployment for combat. The agreement specifies “temporary access by United States forces.” However, it does not specify any time limit to such “temporary access.”
What many aren’t aware of is that the Antonio Bautista Air Base and the Puerto Princesa “International Airport” have one airstrip, with their buildings separated by just a kilometer. Harris’ trip is really an inspection tour of the Antonio Bautista Airbase, which could become a US military facility if hostilities between the US and China break out.
The upgrading of the airport — to have an instrument landing system, runway lights and approach landing lights making it capable of nighttime operations as well as low visibility landings — was started, not coincidentally, in 2014 right after the EDCA was signed. It was built by a Korean conglomerate and funded by the Export-Import Bank of Korea, a staunch ally of the US in Asia.
I bet Harris may have even whispered to Chinese leader Xi when they briefly met also last week in Bangkok: “Just between you and me, Ukraine will defeat Russia as we will be using our EDCA- type bases in Romania and Bulgaria to continuously provide war materiel to that country. And guess what, Mr. Xi, we have an EDCA-type base in the Philippines, not too far from Taiwan.”
Probably with her trademark toothy smile, Harris could have said “And I’m inspecting that base next week.”
The Philippine EDCA was practically cut and pasted from nearly exact agreements that the US had struck with Romania in 2005 and Bulgaria in 2006 — countries near Ukraine and Russia — as part of the Americans’ plan to encircle Russia. These agreements though were ratified by those countries’ legislatures, unlike ours which was signed only by the then Defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin and the US ambassador to Manila Philip Goldberg, and ratified by Aquino 3rd.
Marcos made himself appear either naïve by claiming Harris’ visit to Palawan didn’t mean anything as the island was “just another part of the Philippines.”
Romualdez, our ambassador to the US, had a different take from his boss though, sounding as if he were the president or the foreign affairs secretary — or an American diplomat. “That’s as obvious as you can get, that the message the US is trying to impart to the Chinese is that ‘we support our allies like the Philippines on these disputed islands’,” Romualdez told the Associated Press. “This visit is a significant step in showing how serious the United States views this situation now.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo has said not a single word about Harris’ visit.
That has raised talks in the DFA that he wasn’t even informed of, nor was the Malacañang asked beforehand, as protocol requires, if the US vice president can undertake the visit to the Philippines, and especially to Palawan — which requires much more security arrangements than just visiting Malacañang and intense study as to its implications on our relationship with China.
Harris’ visit was first announced in a press release dated October 28 by US Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, which was mainly titled, ” President Biden’s Travel to North Africa and Asia and Vice President Harris’s Travel to Asia.” The last paragraph of the press statement said that after the APEC meeting in Bangkok, Harris “will then travel to [the] Philippines where she with reaffirm and strengthen the US-Philippines alliance and underscore the breadth of our cooperation as friends, partners and allies.” There was no mention that she would visit Palawan.
The next day, the DFA rushed to confirm the visit, with its spokesman announcing that “the department is now working with the US Embassy in Manila to finalize arrangements for Harris’ trip.” There was however no mention that Harris would be visiting Palawan, and such a visit that would surely have required the Marcos government to study it in more detail sends a truculent message to China.
It was only a few days before Harris’ visit to the Philippines that US officials underscored its significance. Harris will underscore “the importance of international law, unimpeded commerce and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” an Associated Press article quoted an unnamed high-ranking US official as saying.
In response to a question, the official added that Washington was not concerned how Beijing would perceive the visit. “China can take the message it wants. The message to the region is that the United States is a member of the Indo-Pacific, we are engaged, we’re committed to the security of our allies in the region.”
Harris’ visit will trigger a geopolitical tremor in the region. Beijing, as it has consistently demonstrated in all its tiffs with other nations, will not leave what it will view as a provocation unanswered. We need this Harris’ visit like a hole in the head at this time. Marcos should have just made excuses for the visit not to be undertaken at this time, maybe that he was too busy as Agriculture secretary to meet with the US vice president.
Will Xi soon visit China’s huge artificial island Mischief Reef, now complete with ports and airstrips for its warships and warplanes — one of its massive island-making constructions it built from 2013-2014 on the seven reefs it had decades ago occupied, in response to the Aquino 3rd’s arbitration suit against China?
Will Shenzhen inspectors suddenly find pests in our banana exports being loaded at its ports, shipments that they will send back to the Philippines as they rot, which they did during the Scarborough Shoal standoffs?
This is not the way to have foreign policy equidistant from the two superpowers.
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