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Blinken in Philippines to bolster ties amid China worries

MANILA — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed Chinese security risks on Tuesday with senior Philippine leaders, as Washington and Manila seek to bolster ties in the face of increasingly aggressive Chinese action against Philippine targets in the South China Sea.

The visit was the latest effort by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to fortify his nation against Beijing, as he steers Manila toward a much more assertive stance toward China than his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte once declared it was “time to say goodbye” to Washington and cultivated closer relations with China. Marcos, by contrast, has built up a network of global security allies to help defend against Chinese naval aggression in disputed waters and plans to visit Washington next month for the first joint summit with U.S. and Japanese leaders.

Blinken’s visit — coming in the middle of a longer swing through Europe, Asia and the Middle East — was the latest in an intense parade of high-level U.S. visits to Manila. Just last week, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo came to the Philippine capital to announce plans to invest $1 billion in the country’s tech sector, part of an ongoing U.S. effort to diversify the global supply of semiconductors and reduce reliance on Chinese manufacturing.

“The alliance has never been stronger,” Blinken told reporters in Manila, speaking alongside Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo. “We have a shared concern about [China’s] actions to threaten our common vision for a free, open Indo-Pacific.”

Blinken declared that the United States has “an ironclad commitment” to a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines that extends to any armed attack on Philippine armed forces and public vessels. “We’ve been very clear about that,” he said.

He said that none of the U.S. efforts to build alliances in the region “are directed against anyone or anything, they’re in service of something. They’re there for trying to realize the positive vision that all of the countries involved share of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Manalo told reporters that the U.S.-Philippine relationship has “been on hyperdrive over the past year or so,” declaring that his country is a “formidable ally for the United States.”

China lays claim to most of the South China Sea, despite conflicting claims by various countries. The Philippine claim is bolstered by a ruling in its favor by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which China does not recognize. Beijing has claimed that Washington is behind the Philippine pushback, accusing the two of fueling tension at sea.

Over the last year, the island nation has extensively documented how its vessels have come under extreme harassment by China, such as facing collisions and water cannons. These gray-zone tactics fall just short of an armed attack, which could trigger Washington’s obligations to defend the Philippines under the mutual defense treaty.

Relations between the United States and Philippines were strained under Duterte, who publicly “realigned” himself with China. But Marcos has sought international support in the South China Sea, and expanded U.S. access to Philippine military bases.

Since 2022, the Philippines has embarked on a spree of new defense agreements, signing deals with the European Union, India and Britain. Japan, Canada and France are also looking at signing military agreements with the Philippines, according to their embassies.

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