In the Philippines, Blinken Vows to Strengthen Military Ties

MANILA — President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Saturday that their nations were committed to strengthening their military alliance, and that their governments would need to deal with rising tensions in Asia, including those involving China and Taiwan.

Mr. Marcos said at the start of a meeting with Mr. Blinken in the presidential palace that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan had not, in his opinion, intensified those tensions; rather, it “demonstrated how the intensity of the conflict has been at that level for a good while now, but we sort of got used to the idea and then put it aside.”

Mr. Marcos’s comment came as China continued to hold military exercises in the waters near Taiwan, two days after it fired 11 ballistic missiles into the same area, five of them landing in waters that are part of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

The United States, Japan and other nations have issued statements denouncing China’s actions and calling for de-escalation. The words by Mr. Marcos also supported the assertion by Mr. Blinken and other American officials that Ms. Pelosi’s visit was consistent with U.S. policy on Taiwan, not a shifting of the status quo.

Mr. Marcos also spoke of building on the mutual defense arrangement between the United States and the Philippines. The two countries are treaty allies, and the U.S. military has long maintained a presence in the Philippines. American officials have been discussing possible greater access to military bases in the country, doing more exercises between the two militaries and making their defense systems more interoperable — part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at increasing cooperation with allies and partners to counterbalance China.

Mr. Marcos talked about the need “to evolve that relationship in the face of all the changes that we have been seeing,” adding that “the Mutual Defense Treaty is in constant evolution.”

Mr. Blinken agreed. “The alliance is strong,” he said, “and, I believe, can grow even stronger.”

American troops after the closing ceremony for joint U.S.-Philippines war exercises at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City in April. The two countries are treaty allies.Credit…Ezra Acayan for The New York Times

Mr. Marcos was sworn in at the end of June after being elected the 17th president of the Philippines in a landslide victory. He is the son and namesake of a former dictator who fled to Hawaii with his family in 1986 after a peaceful uprising by citizens furious at the father’s brazen corruption. The elder Marcos died in Hawaii in 1989.

The question of how to confront China on its assertive behavior in the region while at the same time dealing with it as an important economic partner was one that arose throughout Mr. Blinken’s meetings with Philippine officials on Saturday, as well as in his discussions with other Asian dignitaries at a regional summit in Cambodia this week.

After Mr. Blinken and Enrique A. Manalo, the foreign minister of the Philippines, met by video, Mr. Manalo said in response to a question at a news conference that the two countries could explore the possibility of joint naval patrols in the Pacific.

Read More on the Relations Between Asia and the U.S.

  • Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan has exacerbated tensions between the United States and China, which claims the self-governing island as its own. The visit could also undermine the Biden administration’s strategy of building economic and diplomatic ties in Asia to counter Beijing.
  • China’s Military Drills: After Ms. Pelosi’s trip, China began military exercises near Taiwan that appear to be designed as a trial run for sealing off the island. U.S. officials are discussing their options if the drills expand into something more.
  • CHIPS and Science Act: Congress passed a $280 billion bill aimed at building up America’s manufacturing and technological edge to counter China. It is the most significant U.S. government intervention in industrial policy in decades.

Mr. Manalo spoke with Mr. Blinken by video and took part virtually in the news conference because he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mr. Blinken told reporters that in his discussions, he had affirmed the “ironclad” commitment of the United States to defending the Philippines and had said that any armed attack on the Philippine military would trigger pledges in their mutual defense treaty.

He also denounced illegal fishing and environmental destruction in Asian waters by “outside actors.” Together, those comments were a clear reference to actions by China. For years, nations in the region have complained of illegal fishing by Chinese boats, which are believed to operate throughout the seas with the approval of China’s Navy.

The Chinese government has made expansive claims to territorial control of the waters and land features in the South China Sea, despite competing claims by Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, and the insistence by Washington that all nations maintain freedom of navigation.

Ships from China and the Philippines faced off over the Scarborough Shoal, and an international court in The Hague ruled in 2016 that the shoal was sovereign territory of the Philippines, and that China could not claim the entire South China Sea as its own. China has continued to send ships to the area and assert control of it.

Fishermen in a village on the western tip of Luzon island in the Philippines, facing the South China Sea. Manila has had to deal with China’s efforts to change the status quo in that sea.Credit…Jes Aznar for The New York Times

Mr. Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, tried to adopt more conciliatory policies toward China, including backing down from strong territorial assertions over the South China Sea. But Mr. Marcos has pledged to uphold the ruling of the international court — a decision that will almost certainly bring his government into conflict with China.

Mr. Duterte, who held office for six years, at one point moved to end an important military agreement between the United States and the Philippines. That and other actions by Mr. Duterte, who was widely criticized for human rights abuses and authoritarian practices, strained the relationship between Manila and Washington.

But last year, Mr. Duterte reaffirmed the Visiting Forces Agreement between the countries, which the Philippine military strongly supports. The agreement sets terms for the rotation of American troops through the Philippines for drills and exercises.

In the news conference with Mr. Manalo, Mr. Blinken also criticized China for its decision on Friday to break off eight areas of cooperation and dialogue with the United States over Ms. Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, including military-to-military talks and climate change negotiations.

“Suspending climate cooperation doesn’t punish the United States; it punishes the world, particularly in the developing world,” he said. “We should not hold hostage matters of global concern because of differences between our two countries.”

Mr. Blinken said he warned Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, at a meeting of foreign ministers on Friday morning at the summit in Cambodia against continuing escalatory actions over Ms. Pelosi’s visit. Hours later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced the suspension of the areas of cooperation.

“I think maintaining dialogue is arguably even more important when we’re in a period of heightened tensions, as we are now,” Mr. Blinken said at the news conference in Manila.

After the news conference, Mr. Blinken visited a Covid-19 vaccination clinic at the Manila Zoo and watched a young boy and a young girl get inoculated. Down on a knee, he told the boy he had gotten four shots himself. He later talked about the need for nations to work together to stem the coronavirus pandemic, and he fed fruit to an elephant from Sri Lanka before leaving the zoo.

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