Manila – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr Saturday in a bid to bolster the countries’ “strong” alliance, as China conducts military drills around nearby Taiwan.
Blinken is the most senior US official to visit the Southeast Asian nation — a treaty-bound ally of the United States — since Marcos took office on June 30.
“The alliance is strong and I believe can grow even stronger,” Blinken told Marcos as they met at the presidential palace in the capital Manila.
Marcos hailed the “special relationship” between the two countries.
The United States has a security pact with the Philippines and has backed its former colony in increasingly heated disputes in the South China Sea with Beijing.
Blinken’s meeting with Marcos came after China launched a series of huge military exercises around Taiwan that have been condemned by the United States and other Western allies.
On Saturday, the third day of the war games, Taiwan accused the Chinese military of simulating an attack on its main island as they deployed fighter jets and warships just 400 kilometres north of the Philippines.
The People’s Liberation Army has also declared multiple no-go danger zones around Taiwan, straddling major shipping lanes and coming within 20 kilometres (12 miles) of the island’s shores at some points.
The moves came in response to a visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which prompted fury in China.
Marcos said Pelosi’s visit only demonstrated the existing “intensity” of the conflict, rather than adding to tensions.
In virtual talks with his Philippine counterpart Enrique Manalo, who is recovering from Covid-19, Blinken said the United States was “determined to act responsibly so that we avoid crisis, we avoid conflict”, without specifically mentioning China or Taiwan.
Manalo said the Philippines could not afford a “further escalation of tensions in the region” as it battles “significant challenges”, such as reviving its pandemic-hit economy.
“The Philippines continues to look at big powers to help calm the waters and keep the peace,” he said.
– ‘Significant escalation’ –
Blinken arrived in Manila late Friday after attending an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia.
There, he condemned China’s military drills as “a significant escalation”.
Like other members of ASEAN, the Philippines does not formally recognise Taiwan and has shown no appetite for backing Taipei against China.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said Thursday it was “concerned with the rising tensions” to its north and urged “restraint by all parties”.
“Diplomacy and dialogue must prevail,” it said in a statement.
The United States has a complex relationship with the Philippines — and the Marcos family.
After ruling the former US colony for two decades with the support of Washington, which saw him as a Cold War ally, Ferdinand Marcos Senior went into exile in Hawaii in the face of mass protests and with the nudging of the United States in 1986.
As regional tensions rise, Washington is keen to preserve its security alliance with Manila, which includes a mutual defence treaty and permission for the US military to store defence equipment and supplies on several Philippine bases.
It also allows US troops to access certain military bases in the country.
Marcos has indicated he will strike a balance between China and the United States, which are vying to have the closest ties with his administration.
US relations rebounded with Manila toward the end of the tenure of Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who waged a brutal war on drugs that rights groups say left tens of thousands of dead.